Jackie Earle Haley: 'Bad News' to Oscar Gold

It's not your typical child star who grows up to earn an Oscar nomination for a role as a sex offender, and Jackie Earle Haley is just as surprised as everyone else.

"I'm elated, I'm excited, I'm thrilled and I'm scared to death," the 45-year-old actor said.

In the 30 years since "The Bad News Bears" made him a star, Haley went from teen heartthrob to total obscurity, worked menial jobs and struggled with substance abuse. He had made peace with his decision to give up show business before landing the role in "Little Children" that earned him the Oscar nod.

"Two and a half years ago, just the idea of trying to figure out how to get back into acting again seemed impossible," Haley said. "Like climbing Mount Everest."

And yet, Haley is now an Oscar-nominated actor with a comeback story that is one of the year's most unlikely.

A Teen Idol's Growing Pains

You might not recognize the name Jackie Earle Haley, but you may remember his face. In 1976, at only 14 years old, Haley shot to stardom as rebel Kelly Leak opposite Tatum O'Neal in "The Bad News Bears."

Haley became so popular, he was chased by girls in shopping malls, but life as a teen heartthrob had its ups and downs.

"You just kind of feel like everybody knows you, but you don't know everybody," Haley said.

Haley went on to other films, including roles in the coming-of-age film "Breaking Away" and the Tom Cruise movie "Losin' It." But his career began to founder and he began taking roles in low-budget movies like "Dollman" and "Maniac Cop 3."

"I started to take kind of B-roles in B-movies, and then C-roles in C-movies," Haley said. "Pretty soon, I was unable to make a living acting."

Identity Crisis

When acting wouldn't pay the bills anymore, Haley said he took jobs as a limousine driver, a security guard and a delivery man -- at one point delivering a pizza to Richard Halsey, the editor of "Losin' It."

"I shook his hand, we talked for about three minutes, uh, I gave him the pizzas," Haley recalled, "[and] he gave me a good $4 tip. … So that was pretty cool."

Even humiliating incidents like that one, Haley said, were character building. But at the time, he struggled with a crisis of identity.

"There's a side that pulls and says … 'This is who you are; you're recognizable, but you need to work for a living,'" Haley remembered thinking. "There's this other side pulling on you saying … 'You shouldn't be driving limousines and delivering pizza; you should be focusing on your acting career.'"

Haley found himself in a downward spiral.

"It took me a long time to realize that my self-identity, my self-esteem, and a lot of that, was somehow kind of anchored and tied to that celebrity," he said. "When the celebrity started to drift, my identity was kind of drifting away with it."

It was a dark time. Jackie admits he sometimes drank too much. At one point, he found himself three months behind on the rent. He was so used to opportunity seeking him out, he was paralyzed when it didn't.

A Fresh Start

Haley was 30 years old when it finally dawned on him that something had to change. After years of struggling with the decision, he finally decided to give up Hollywood for good.

He had always wanted to be a director, so he set out to start over in San Antonio, where he began a successful career producing and directing television commercials for national ad campaigns. His son, Chris, worked with him at the company.

In 2004, Haley married his long-time friend Amelia Cruz, and it was during their honeymoon in France that Hollywood came knocking again --more than 10 years since he had last appeared in a film.

Another Shot at Stardom

The director Steve Zallian and the actor Sean Penn, who had worked with Haley on Broadway, sought him out for the small but important role of Sugar Boy in the 2006 film "All the King's Men."

"I made a decision to leave this," Haley recalled. "[I] finally started to get comfortable in my own skin … doing reasonable financially. And then the sky opens up and Steve Zallian reaches his hand down and pulls me up and says, 'Hey man, you wanna have another go at this?'"

After some soul-searching, Haley decided he didn't have a grudge against Hollywood and took the role, where he caught the attention of his co-star, Kate Winslet.

Soon after, he was offered a chance to audition for "Little Children." Winslet, who had already been cast as the film's lead, volunteered to read the tragic final scene with him.

Todd Field, the film's director, gave him the role on the spot, and Haley burst into tears.

"Kate actually burst into tears too," Haley recalled. "We gave each other this big, excited hug."

A New Challenge

Haley had earned himself a difficult role. In "Little Children" he plays Ronnie, a sex offender who has just been released from prison and who moves back home with his mother. The neighborhood parents react hysterically when they find out a sex offender has moved into the town, culminating in a harrowing scene when Ronnie arrives at the town swimming pool.

Surprisingly, Haley's Ronnie is at once extremely sympathetic and menacing, and he says managing the fine line between the two was not easy.

"Creating a sympathetic character was not something we were trying to do," Haley said. "Our focus with him was to make him real -- you know, character flaws and all -- and let you decide."

Lessons From Life

Haley's character deals with many of the challenges the actor faced in his own life, including low self-esteem and an identify crisis.

"His super self-loathing-- I mean, this guy is all alone in the world with the exception of his mom," Haley said. "And I think he feels that stuff to such a certain degree that he needs to escape."

A self-described happy-go-lucky guy, Haley tapped into Ronnie's dark side by using his own life experience as motivation. In the film, Ronnie essentially interacts only with his mother -- a relationship in which Haley saw an echo from his own life.

Haley's brother, Tru, struggled for more than a decade with an addiction to heroin before he overdosed and died. But Tru's mother did not abandon him.

"When his life was total crap, when he was just at the depths of depression and self-hatred and loathing and all of that, my mother was always there for him," Haley said.

From 'Bad News' to the Oscars

Haley's performance in "Little Children" has garnered rave reviews. He has already won several major awards, including the New York and San Francisco Film Critics Circle awards for best supporting actor, and he was nominated for a Screen Actor's Guild Award. Now, the Academy.

After so many down on his luck years in Hollywood, it was the last thing he expected.

After a dry spell of more than a decade without appearing in a major studio release, Haley is receiving lots of scripts. Though he says he'll continue to act, he's not giving up his commercial business.

And to those who ask where he's been for the past 15 years, he answers simply, "I've been here the whole time. … I just had to go and find my way just like the rest of us."