Actor Michael Rooker (1955- ) has appeared in more than 100 television and film productions, playing characters that filmgoers either loathe or envy and has starred in several of the highest-grossing films. His versatility as a character actor has earned him credits in independent, small-budget films, such as Slither, and Hollywood blockbusters, including Guardians of the Galaxy. He one of only two actors to have appeared alongside the biggest action stars of the 1980s: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Michael Rooker, 2013 Born on April 6, 1955, in Jasper, Walker County, into a family of eight children, Rooker lived in a house with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing. As a young child, he and a cousin would scour the ground to find bottle caps from RC Colas in order to exchange them for free admission to the local movie theater. Six bottle caps, he once recalled, were enough to get him a ticket. Rooker’s parents divorced when he was 12, and the following year his mother moved with the children to Chicago, where they lived in what Rooker describes as a rough neighborhood. Rooker has credited his hardscrabble upbringing with fostering his determination and fight to succeed as an actor. In high school, he worked as a lifeguard at Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, winning Rookie Lifeguard of the Year and saving some 10 people in one of his summers at the job.
Encouraged by an instructor at Wright Junior College in Chicago to audition for admission to the prestigious Goodman School of Drama (now the Theater School of DePaul University), Rooker debated for two years on whether to try out and finally applied and was accepted. He graduated in 1982 and worked in the theater for several years thereafter. He later professed his love for film acting because it gave actors the chance to improvise and create, as opposed to the rehearsed and technical nature of stage performing. He once equated film acting with being a jazz musician in its possibilities for personalizing a role.
His breakthrough role was the title role in John McNaughton’s low-budget cult film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which is based on the life of serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas. The film was shot in 1986 but was not released until 1990 because of continuing debate over its rating. Rooker received critical acclaim and an Independent Spirit Award for best actor in 1991 for the film. Footage from the unreleased film sent to director John Sayles led to Rooker being cast as one of the main characters in the 1988 baseball film Eight Men Out, which was based on the game-fixing scandal of the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series. Rooker has recounted the story of winning the role of Charles “Chick” Gandil by going to the town where the film was shooting, knowing that Sayles had seen the footage of his performance in Henry, and finagling his way into an audition. Despite getting into a shouting match with the casting director, he still won the role. The film was critically acclaimed and widely popular at the box office, and Rooker credits it with bringing him more opportunities, including roles in some of the highest-grossing films of the late 1980s and the 1990s: Mississippi Burning, Sea of Love, Days of Thunder, JFK, Cliffhanger, and Tombstone. He also appeared in Kevin Smith’s 1995 cult indie film Mallrats.
In addition to his film work, Rooker has appeared on a number of popular television shows, including Burn Notice, Criminal Minds, Law and Order, and the 2006 miniseries Thief. Despite his more than 100 film and television acting credits, however, Rooker did not become a widely recognized figure until he was cast as Merle Dixon, a racist southern drug addict, in AMC’s The Walking Dead series about the zombie apocalypse. Merle Dixon and his brother Daryl struck a chord among devoted Walking Dead fans. Rooker has said that people responded to the character and the show because provided them a sense of relief and the belief that they live in a safer world. In 2011, Merle Dixon’s popularity led Rooker to be hired as a character voice to play Merle in the Call of the Dead video game, which is part of the Call of Duty series of games and centers on a zombie-infested future.
Rooker’s name recognition exploded internationally when he was cast as Yondu Udonta, the blue-skinned leader of a band of space pirates in the blockbuster 2014 superhero film Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the major installments in the Marvel Comics Cinematic Universe. He reprised his role in 2017 in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, and his character’s sympathetic turn and sacrificial death earned Rooker wide praise. He has continued to be a popular choice for fantasy and science fiction films, appearing in 2019’s Brightburn and 2021’s The Suicide Squad. He also continues to appear in television and video game voice roles.
A regular presence at science fiction conventions and fan gatherings, Rooker has embraced his fans, regularly mentioning them in interviews and even endorsing the creation of the “Rookerholics” fan group. The rise of social media and viewers’ ability to either watch live or stream the show fostered both the show’s and Rooker’s popularity. Rooker is married to Margot Rooker, with whom he has two daughters. He is an avid target shooter and is part-owner of the Angeles Shooting Range in Lake View Terrace, California, and is also a skilled martial arts practitioner, particularly in the sport of aikido.