In his acclaimed comeback role, Rourke plays Randy (The Ram) Robinson, a downtrodden pro wrestler whose halcyon days are more than two decades behind him. The Ram is divorced, broken and defeated.
Parallels between The Ram and Rourke are more than cursory. Rourke’s comeback role in The Wrestler reflects aspects of his real-life comeback.
Once a rising Hollywood superstar, Rourke lost control of his career and future, nearly fading into Tinsel Town irrelevance through self-destructiveness. Suicide was once a pressing possibility.
The Academy nodded instead at Sean Penn, who won Best Actor for his portrayal of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. This has handed Rourke another defeat, but one that won’t sideline his revitalized acting career. He has finally learned to fight back.
An interesting column juxtaposing Rourke’s role with real-life pro wrestler Tito Santana appears in a weekly New York Times column called Generation B, reported and written by Michael Winerip, a veteran Boomer journalist for the newspaper.
Rourke’s sensitive portrayal of The Ram and Winerip’s column about middle-aged professional wrestlers inspired me to reflect upon another fighting hero, Dr. Mark Crooks, who at 64 has demonstrated true grit when confronting nearly insurmountable obstacles.
A four-time cancer survivor, an extreme adventure athlete long before there was a name to describe what he did, he personifies fitness and health, exuding a lust for living on the edge that belies a manicured life.
The triumvirate ruling his intense passage has been disease, danger and determination.
He began running ten years before it became a fashionable Boomer fad. His grandmother owned a health food store in Kansas City, so he grew up consuming vitamins and organic foods when most Americans would have considered these practices cultish.
A large, well-built man with a rugged tan and supercharged athleticism, Mark was an academic pioneer at the University of Kansas, receiving the first doctoral degree in health and sports science with a minor in sports psychology. He confronted academic traditions with a persistent dislike for conventional thinking.
A simmering distrust of capricious power, borne of a father's abandonment in childhood, focused him laser-like on achievement and taught him that life is a risk, and the way to meet adversity is through intense physical and mental preparation. The way to fight injustice is to spark fear among the unjust. His imposing physical size and superior fitness have served him to this end, motivating him to test the limits of strength and endurance.
The arch of Mark’s life began at age fourteen months when ignorant doctors treated a sinus infection with radiation. The unfiltered nuclear blast was 70 times the level considered safe by today’s standards.
This overdose fractured his immune system, spawned a tennis-ball size tumor in his neck at age nine, and now, as a middle-aged man, has forced him to confront thyroid, lung and prostate cancers during the last ten years. He has walked then jogged away from each medical challenge.
Mark has stared down death 39 times. He has survived several near-fatal motorcycle accidents, watched a shotgun blow up in his hands, nearly collided with a riverboat while swimming at night in the Missouri River, and crashed into the Kansas prairie in an ultra-light hang glider. And he has also survived daredevil feats to demonstrate resilience of the human body under most adverse conditions.
After exhaustive physical and mental training, he successfully jumped ninety feet into the Missouri River from a downtown Kansas City bridge; he swam from Kansas City to St. Louis in the Missouri River, fighting hypothermia and exposure for five exhausting days; he scaled the highest building in Kansas City; and, he came within hours of setting the world’s record for continuous underwater scuba diving.
These feats comprise a sizeable portion of his book published in the early 1980s: Achieving Wellness through Positive Risk Taking. Although this book never found a large national audience due to the vagaries of self-publishing, Mark nevertheless was years ahead of fitness trends then sweeping the nation, from jogging to daily vitamin supplementation, from organic foods to strength training.
What is important about Mark’s story isn’t just the melodrama of a determined life but the wisdom he has gathered along the way. He personifies Friedrich Nietzsche’s inspirational message:
That which does not destroy you makes you stronger.
His journey reveals the discipline and intelligence of a thoughtful academic, contrasted with the “Go for it” nonchalance of an extreme athlete. He has conquered insurmountable odds because he understands the human body, how to overcome disease and heal tissue damage. Like Mickey Rourke, he knows how to fight back.
As Boomers grow older, facing inevitable chronic diseases, we will need additional inspiring survival stories, imagined or real.
Mickey Rourke’s cinematic portrayal of a professional wrestler and Mark Crooks' confrontations with cancer have important implications to those who want to create unforgettable advertising campaigns targeting Boomers.
Comeback and survival themes resonate powerfully with this generation, now more than ever.
Mickey Rourke's true victory with The Wrestler is professional achievement against all odds, a role reenacted daily by my friend Mark.