An imposingly-built character actor who specialized in intense, often dangerous characters on both sides of the law, Michael Rooker rose to prominence in the late 1980s as a psychotic serial killer in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1986). Outfitted with an unwavering gaze and a granite jaw, Rooker was a natural for physically terrifying villains, but gave equally fine turns as world-weary cops, cowboys and tough patriarchs, all of which benefited from his dust-dry voice and uneasy smile. Rooker went on to tackle a number of memorable roles, playing disgraced Black Sox player Chick Gandil in "Eight Men Out" (1988), disloyal New Orleans prosecutor Bill Broussard in "JFK" (1991), and outlaw-turned-lawman Sherman McMasters in "Tombstone" (1993). For the remainder of the decade, he had supporting turns in a wide array of films like "Mallrats" (1995), "Rosewood" (1997) and "The Bone Collector" (1999), while in the new millennium he began having a stronger presence on television with guest spots on "CSI: Miami" (CBS, 2002-2012), "Numb3rs" (CBS, 2005-2010) and "Criminal Minds" (CBS, 2005- ). In 2010, Rooker was cast as racist zombie apocalypse survivor Merle Dixon on "The Walking Dead" (AMC, 2010- ), a high-profile role the multi-faceted performer eagerly sank his teeth into. The success of this series led to other high-profile roles in films such as "Brother's Keeper" (2013) and the blockbuster "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014).
Born in Jasper, AL on April 6, 1955, Michael Rooker relocated to Chicago, IL with his mother and eight siblings after the divorce of his parents. There, his family struggled to make ends meet and put him and his brothers and sisters through school. Initially, Rooker viewed the Marines as his career of choice, but after landing roles in college productions, he shifted his focus to acting. He gained entry to the prestigious Goodman School of Drama, and then made a name in local theater productions. Bit roles in television and film productions lensed in the Windy City soon followed, with his breakthrough, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," coming in 1986. Directed in stark, realistic tones by Chicago filmmaker John McNaughton on a miniscule budget, the horror-drama followed Rooker's brooding, monstrous loner as he cut a swath of death through the underbelly of a rotting industry city. Based on the real-life murder spree of prolific serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Rooker embodied the purest, most banal face of evil, a hapless man-child who resorted to unspeakable violence to combat the pain of his horrific upbringing. His unnerving performance, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination, rattled all who viewed it, most notably the cast and crew, as the actor remained in character throughout the shoot. A critical success as well as a genre classic, "Henry" minted Rooker as a screen villain without peer.
Hollywood soon took notice of Rooker's talents, tapping him for a wide variety of projects. Most of these early roles landed in his lap due to the intensity of his screen presence, like Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning" (1988), which cast him as a brutish Southern Klan member based on Alton Wayne Bailey, the real-life killer of three civil rights workers in 1964, or a psychopathic husband pursued by Al Pacino in "Sea of Love" (1989). But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, his breadth of talent allowed him to explore more nuanced roles. He was Jessica Lange's brother in Costa-Gavras' "Music Box" (1989), which was based on the real-life trial of John Demjanjuk, an elderly suburbanite accused of Nazi atrocities. In John Sayles' "Eight Men Out" (1988), he was the menacing Chick Gandil, the White Sox player who initiated the "Black Sox" betting scandal that brought down the team after its 1919 World Series, and in Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1991), he was CIA agent Bill Broussard (based on real-life fed William Wood), who challenged New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison's (Kevin Costner) investigations into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And his Rowdy Burns in "Days of Thunder" (1991) began as an imposing antagonist for Tom Cruise's hotshot racecar driver, but later became an unwavering ally. By this time in his career, it was becoming evident that Rooker's talent allowed him to play both sides of the coin with honesty.
By 1993, Rooker was among the busiest character actors in Hollywood, and expanding his roster of roles to include more heroes and likable figures. His physicality made him among the few performers who could believably stand toe-to-toe with such brawny action heroes as Sylvester Stallone in "Cliffhanger" (1993), in which he played the star's reluctant sidekick, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the sci-fi actioner "The Sixth Day" (2000). He again played a villain who turned amiable in the hit Western "Tombstone" (1993), starring as the real outlaw Sherman McMasters, who joined Wyatt Earp in avenging the murder of his brother, Morgan, by McMasters' former gang. There were also rare appearances in genres outside the action and thriller circles he frequented, including Anjelica Huston's "Bastard Out of Carolina" (Showtime, 1996), which made excellent use of Rooker's Southern upbringing as the sympathetic uncle of abuse victim Jena Malone, and Kevin Smith's "Mallrats" (1996) as Claire Forlani's strict, pretzel-loving dad. In 1998, he made his debut as both leading man and associate producer in "Brown's Requiem," an underrated adaptation of a James Ellroy novel, with Rooker as a cop-turned-detective and a cast of equally stellar character actors, including Brion James, Brad Dourif and Tobin Bell, in support.
With the turn of the new millennium, Rooker's output seemed to double with each passing year. And if he began turning up less frequently in "event" pictures, he had developed what most character actors hoped for in their careers: a level of recognition with both audiences and directors that kept him in steady employ for a wide variety of films. There were occasional leads, like a philandering husband with two wives in "Table for One" (1991), and some stellar roles, including a clueless real estate magnate transformed into a ravenous monster by extraterrestrial slugs in James Gunn's underrated horror comedy "Slither" (2006). That same year, he was featured as a corrupt New Orleans cop on the trail of professional thief Andre Braugher on the unfortunately short-lived drama "Thief" (FX, 2006), and soon added more television appearances on shows like "Stargate SG-1" (Showtime/Sci-Fi Channel, 1997-2007), "Law and Order" (NBC, 1990-2010) and "Criminal Minds" (CBS, 2005- ).
As he entered his fifth decade, Rooker had settled into a regular routine of leads and support in direct-to-video features and guest shots on television series like "Psych" (USA Network, 2006-14) and "Burn Notice" (USA Network, 2007-13). Two decades after his debut in "Henry," he remained a cult favorite in horror films and thrillers, which made up the majority of his theatrical work like both 2010 productions, "Hypothermia" and "Freeway Killer." That same year, he earned a stellar showcase as a racist survivor of a zombie apocalypse on the hit series "The Walking Dead" (AMC, 2010- ). The series, produced by Frank Darabont, offered Rooker a lengthy, unbroken monologue in which he repented his beliefs while chained to a pipe on a building rooftop as the ravenous undead lunge at a flimsy door just feet away. In 2011, Rooker made his directorial debut with "Pennville" (2011), an independent horror movie, and the following year, he returned to "The Walking Dead" as Merle Dixon, who cut his own hand off to escape from the hoard of walkers. After Merle's character arc came to an end in 2013, Rooker went on to co-star in the crime drama "Brother's Keeper" (2013) and the blockbuster smash "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014), as well as the jazz biopic "Bolden!" (2015).
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Feature acting debut, "Streets of Fire"
TV acting debut, "Lady Blue"
TV movie debut, "Sleep Well, Professor Oliver"
Played fellow race car driver Rowdy Burns opposite Tom Cruise in "Days of Thunder" directed by Tony Scott
Feature debut as a lead, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" filmed in 1986
Cast opposite Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone's "JFK"
Acted opposite Sylvester Stallone in the thriller "Cliffhanger" directed by Renny Harlin
Cast in Anjelica Huston's directorial debut "Bastard Out of Carolina"
Appeared opposite Yun-Fat Chow and Mira Sorvino in "The Replacement Killers"
Played Captain Howard Cheney in "The Bone Collector" starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie
Cast opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the futuristic thriller "The 6th Day"
Appeared in the TV movie "Saving Jessica Lynch" based on the true story of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, by the United States army, in Iraq
Played Grant Grant in horror flick "Slither"
Landed the role of Merle Dixon, Daryl's brother, on AMC's hit zombie survival series "The Walking Dead"
Played the supporting role of Yondu Udonta in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"
Returned in an expanded role as Yondu in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"