Mark Ruffalo has earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s genuine good guys. Whether he’s picking up stranded hitchhikers, inviting fans to join him on the sets of his movies, or campaigning for the numerous charities he’s involved with, the Wisconsin native is as humble a movie star as you’re likely to meet, but life hasn’t always been as kind to him as he is to others. In fact, given everything he’s been through, it’s a wonder that he isn’t a total jerk.
It might not show, but the affable Avenger is now into his 50s, and his half-century on this earth really has been the proverbial rollercoaster ride. He’s enjoying the heights right now, but, before playing Bruce Banner/the Hulk in Hollywood’s biggest franchise, he had to first experience the lowest of lows, going through things that most of us would struggle to overcome. From crippling poverty and illness to several brushes with death, this is the tragic real-life story of Mark Ruffalo.
His family went bankrupt
He might be able to pull off playing a scientific genius in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Ruffalo didn’t exactly shine academically as a child. When he sat down for an interview with Men’s Journal, the former C student told them that he believes he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia for years, but he dug in and finished high school anyway. After graduation, his family uprooted and moved to what the men’s mag described as a “seedy beach community” in San Diego, though things didn’t exactly work out the way his parents (a house decorator and a hair stylist) had planned. In fact, things went downhill pretty fast.
“Within six months, we went from normal to bankrupt and eliminated as a family,” the actor said. His dad, Frank,(whom he described as “an artist who never found his art form”) packed his bags and moved back to Wisconsin, leaving his four kids and wife Marie behind. Ruffalo had excelled as a wrestler in school, but, despite being told that he had a shot at a scholarship, he decided to pursue a career as an actor instead. He moved into a $600-a-month apartment with two friends and his kid brother Scott. “He’d make a f***ing giant bowl of tuna pasta, and we’d eat off that all week long,” Ruffalo recalled. “The best of times, the worst of times.”
He battled real-life anger issues
Overcoming anger is essentially what playing the Hulk is all about, and, because of that, Mark Ruffalo wouldn’t appear to be a natural fit for the part. Nick Fury actor Samuel Jackson called him a “cuddly little bear” and revealed that “everyone loves hugging on Mark” on the set of the Marvel movies, but, believe it or not, he was once a very angry young man.
“You should have seen me in my 20s, man,” he told the New York Daily News. “I was the poster definition of an angry young man with a persecution complex … I was struggling as a young actor, suffering through imagined or real slights from other people’s hands. So it wasn’t too hard to revisit those places.”
Ruffalo spent so long dealing with professional rejection (he reckons that he auditioned for anywhere between 600 and 800 roles without hearing back!) that he started to bring his anger home with him. He said, “… there was a time if you came into my apartment, there were pictures and posters hanging in very odd places where they were covering fist-holes through walls,” adding, “Glasses that had been thrown through, coffee mugs, books, whatever I could get a hold of.”
He suffered from anxiety
The three-time Academy Award nominee told the New York Daily News that he was eventually able to stop wearing his anger on his sleeve after he realized that he had a lot to be thankful for, but he needed some professional help to get it under control. After reaching a point where he was struggling to sleep because his brain wouldn’t “shut off” at night, an old friend recommended that he try meditation, and it changed his life.
“I had a friend who had been a longtime drug addict,” Ruffalo told Rolling Stone. “He did the [meditation] program, and we hooked up again after a couple years … He had been the angriest man in the world, and he had such a calm demeanor. I had never seen a human being change that much.” The actor sought out his own meditation teacher to see if it would work for him in the same way, and the results were astonishing.
“It’s pretty much a daily practice that quiets your brain and oddly enough, actually slows down time, so you’re not so much trapped in your immediate reactions to things,” he explained. “And everything changed. My work started to change, my luck started to change. The way the world looked to me changed.” The actor told the music mag that despite “all the crazy s*** going on in the world,” practicing meditation gave him an “enormous amount of hope” that everything was going to be okay.
He lived through the ‘crack wars’
Of course, Ruffalo was right. Everything was going to be okay for him, but he still had a whole lot of tragedy to get through before he reached that point in his life. Even after he got his first paid acting gig (a 1989 Clearasil commercial that really hasn’t aged well), he couldn’t afford to move out of the Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, an area notorious for being overrun with drug dealers and dangerous addicts.
“It was the height of the crack wars,” he told Men’s Journal. “We’d go to the park in the morning and there would be bodies strewn out in the grass. Young women, totally strung out, sores all over their face, would knock on our door asking for money or food. It was so heavy.” The future star’s neighbor was stabbed 12 times on Ruffalo’s front porch after attempting to stop some local kids from stealing a car, and the violence even followed him to work.
After burning through his Clearasil money, he started tending at a local dive bar. One evening, a gang member entered and pulled a gun, though, luckily for Ruffalo and his colleagues, the guy working the door at the time was an off-duty police officer. Not so lucky for the gangbanger, however — the cop pulled his own gun and shot him dead on the spot.
He had a brain tumor
Ruffalo’s big break came at the turn of the millennium when he was cast in the critically acclaimed drama You Can Count on Me, the success of which led to a role alongside the legendary Robert Redford in 2001’s The Last Castle. “It was big-time,” he told Men’s Journal. “There I was with one of my heroes, Robert Redford, doing this walk-and-talk. I’m like, ‘What the f*** am I doing here? This is my wildest dream come true!’… And then I found out I had my brain tumor.”
Amazingly, the actor knew about a tumor before doctors confirmed it, having had an incredibly vivid dream about it. He was all set to begin working on M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) when he had the premonition, and he went to the production’s doctor for advice. “Listen, I really had a scary dream last night and you’ll probably think I’m crazy but I think I have a brain tumor and I would really like to get it checked out,” he told her. She went “white as a sheet” when it turned out he was right.
Ruffalo was informed that he had a mass the size of a golf ball behind his left ear (known as an acoustic neuroma) and would need surgery to have it removed as soon as possible. Surgeons informed him that there was an 80 percent chance he would lose his hearing, and a 20 percent chance his facial nerves would be permanently damaged.
He was certain he was going to die
Ruffalo was forced to pass the part of Merrill Hess to Joaquin Phoenix, but that was the least of his worries, as his wife was just weeks from giving birth to their first child at the time. “He didn’t tell anyone for weeks,” his mother recalled. “When he finally did, I was like, ‘Oh my God, how could you bear all that?'” Three weeks after he welcomed son Keen into the world, he went under the knife, but not before recording a message in case he never woke up.
“I was certain I was going to die,” he revealed. “I made a tape for him, for when he was old enough to understand. Just saying, ‘Hey, this is who I am.'” During his interview with the Acoustic Neuroma Association, Ruffalo said his dream was “so startling” that he knew he couldn’t put the surgery off for too long, but a previous bad experience with anesthesia had him terrified. “I just had this fear of dying on the operating table.” And, technically, he did.
“My father told me that my heart had stopped briefly on the operating table, so that was scary to me,” the star revealed. Thankfully, it started beating again, but despite the removal of the benign growth, his battle was just beginning. “They told me the surgery went well, they got all the tumor, they preserved my nerve … but I just heard a ringing in my left ear.”
Half of his face was paralyzed
When that ringing faded, Ruffalo realized that he’d lost all hearing in his left ear. Worse still, that side of his face was completely paralyzed — he couldn’t even close his eye. He begged God not to take away the one thing that he used to support his family, but, at that stage, it looked as though his face might never recover, essentially bringing his career as an actor to an end just as it was really getting started.
“I was like that for about 10 months and the likelihood of it ever getting better looked pretty remote,” he told The Telegraph. “The chances of the nerves coming back diminish each month and month seven was pretty much the cut-off point. But finally the paralysis did start to go. In all, I disappeared for a year.” In that time, Ruffalo kept quiet about why he’d dropped off the map, but that didn’t stop people from guessing.
“There were all kinds of rumours about what had happened to me,” he said. “Drugs, alcoholism, Aids. Whatever the truth, I was damaged goods. I mean, no one is going to hire an actor with half a paralyzed face.” Ruffalo feared that the surgery had ruined his acting ability, but, fortunately, the best was yet to come. His facial nerves eventually recovered and he fought his way back into the spotlight. In 2011, he got his first Oscar nod for his performance in The Kids Are Alright.
Was his brother murdered?
In December 2008, Ruffalo’s younger brother and former roommate Scott was murdered. At least, that’s what the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office ruled. When paramedics arrived at the 39-year-old hairdresser’s Beverly Hills condo, they found him with a gunshot wound to the side of the head. He was rushed to hospital and managed to hang onto life for a week, but, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to recover, his life support was switched off, devastating his family.
“Mark Ruffalo and his family deeply appreciate the outpouring of prayers and support during this most difficult time of the passing of Scott Ruffalo, beloved son, brother and husband,” they said in a statement, though they failed to comment on the strange circumstances surrounding his passing. The two other people present at Scott’s home that night (26-year-old Shaha Adham, the daughter of a wealthy Saudi businessman, and Brian Scofield, her 29-year-old boyfriend) were arrested but told authorities that Scott inflicted the wound on himself.
“The shooting was a result of the victim’s chronic playing of Russian Roulette and his dangerous playing with firearms while under the use of controlled substances,” Adham’s lawyer told the New York Daily News. “My client was a good friend of the victim and is very sad for the loss … However, she played no role whatsoever in his accidental death.” Scofield and Adham (who died of a suspected overdose in 2012) were later released and the coroner’s report overruled.
He never got over it
Ruffalo and Scott were always close, even for brothers. The pair went through some of their toughest times together, forging a bond that went beyond blood. Though the actor had been set to star in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg at the time, he decided to drop out of the indie flick to grieve (he was replaced by Ben Stiller).
Not for the first time in his career, losing a role because of a tragedy turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as when Ruffalo returned to the fold he gained Academy recognition and a part in what would become the highest-grossing Hollywood franchise of all time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all within the space of a few years. “My friends have a term, getting ‘Ruffaloed,'” he told In New York. “It’s when you have what seems to be bad luck that actually turns into good luck later.” Not that he wouldn’t change things if he could.
“You always wonder, ‘What could I have done differently?'” he said. “But there’s also the healthier part that says, ‘You integrate it, and you get on.’ You never get over it, you just get used to it. You get calloused, a little bit harder maybe, so be on guard for that. But take these tragic things and turn them into something meaningful and worthy of the loss. Make it count. From here on out, do the best you can to make it count.”
It wasn’t the last time he lost someone close to him
With perhaps the exception of detective David Toschi, Ruffalo has had more experience with death than the characters he’s portrayed. On top of everything he witnessed while living in MacArthur Park with his brother, he also had to deal with the loss of his best friend, who took his own life In 1994. According to the New York Post, the suicide of his longtime bestie Michael taught Ruffalo “the value of life” and made him all the more determined to make it as an actor.
After he did just that, Ruffalo made a lot of friends in the business, one of whom was Chris Penn. In 2006, the brother of Sean Penn was found dead at his Santa Monica condo, with a suspected overdose the cause. According to a toxicology report obtained by Access Hollywood (via People), the 40-year-old had Valium, morphine, codeine and marijuana in his system when he passed, but the actual cause of death was complications arising from an enlarged heart, the coroner confirmed.
Interest in Penn’s death was high at the time, which led to one brazen member of the paparazzi to intrude on the funeral in the hope of getting some valuable snaps. This infuriated Penn’s grieving loved ones, some of whom decided to confront the snapper. In the ensuing scuffle, Ruffalo snatched the photographer’s camera and confiscated the memory card. Police investigated the actor, but no charges were ever brought against him.
He was accused of terrorism
This wasn’t the last time that Mark Ruffalo would find himself under investigation by the authorities, according to some severely misinformed news outlets, at least. In 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security had placed the Oscar-nominated actor on the terror watch list after he publicly discussed his concerns over natural gas drilling in the United States (via CBS).
Ruffalo was an avid supporter of Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning fracking documentary Gasland, helping to organize screenings of the film in an effort to raise awareness of its potentially disastrous effects on the environment and those living near the drill sites. This apparently made him a threat to security, which he found “pretty f* funny” at first. As the story gained traction, however, he was forced to start taking it seriously, setting the record straight when he sat down with The Telegraph.
“Somehow this story came out about my being on this terrorist list,” he told the newspaper. “Fox News picked it up and bundled it together with my brother’s murder to make it sound as ominous as possible. Then every news organization in the country ran it without bothering to check if it was true. It wasn’t until The Washington Times finally nailed the story that it went away.”