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From 10 days to 11 years: How serving time in prison ruined (or strengthened?) the image of these celebrities

Ending up behind bars can ruin an actor’s career or turn them into a legend. We look at how this has played in nine notable cases, from Felicity Huffman to Mark Wahlberg

Robert Downey Jr., Wesley Snipes, lindsay Lohan, Danny Trejo, Mark Walhberg, Isabel Pantoja y Felicity Huffman
From Robert Downey Jr. to Wesley Snipes, here is a review of the celebrities that have served time behind bars.Getty Images / Blanca López (Getty)
Eva Güimil

In the 2000s, Felicity Huffman was one of the most recognizable faces on TV thanks to her roles in Desperate Housewives and American Crime. She is also the most recent actor to go through a rite that — depending on the celebrity — can either ruin their career or secure their place as legends. For female stars, it’s usually the former, while for male celebrities it’s the latter, although that’s not always the case.

Huffman did not spend long behind bars — only 11 days — but it was enough to irreparably damage her career, as she revealed to the British newspaper The Guardian. She is just one of a long list of celebrities who at some point, before or after their triumph, discovered that committing crime comes with consequences.

Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy Host A New Way Of Life Women Re-Entry Program
Amy Sussman (Getty Images)

Felicity Huffman

Prison time: 11 days

Felicity Huffman’s story could be right out of a plot with Lynette Scavo, her character in Desperate Housewives. Wanting to achieve with money what her daughter had not managed on her own merits made Hoffman the most visible face of Operation Varsity Blues — the investigation into the $25 million paid in bribes to facilitate access to the most prestigious universities in the United States, those colleges which supposedly only accept excellence. This money was used to manipulate grades and falsify sports skill the applicants did not have. Huffman paid more than $15,000 to improve her eldest daughter’s exam results.

“I felt like I had to give my daughter a chance at a future. It was my daughter’s future, which meant I had to break the law,” she told ABC News. “It felt like I would be a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

During the trial, the actress said that her daughter — who was ultimately not accepted by the university — knew nothing about the plot. Nor did her husband, actor William H. Macy, star of Fargo and Shameless, who was not charged. In the end, Huffman pleaded guilty. She was sentenced to 14 days in prison, one year of probation and 250 hours of community service, in addition to a $30,000 fine.

Of the stipulated 14 days, she only spent 11 in prison. Just a week and a half, but a lifetime in terms of the damage it did to her reputation. She continued to receive offers, although nothing of the calibre suited to a TV star who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Transamerica (2005). “I did a pilot for ABC recently that didn’t get picked up. It’s been hard. Sort of like your old life died and you died with it,” she told The Guardian, ahead of staring in the play Hir in London.

Her daughter, incidentally, repeated the exam and got the necessary grades.

Oscars Nominees Luncheon 2024 Red Carpet
Michael Blackshire (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

Robert Downey Jr.

Prison time: 18 months

During the 1990s, Robert Downey Jr. got into so much trouble that it was more common to see him smiling in mugshots than on the red carpet. Introduced to drugs by his father when he was barely six years old, he built up a rap sheet as long as it was varied: possession of weapons and drugs, driving naked, using drugs in public places, violating probation, even for breaking into the property of his parent’s neighbors and falling asleep in their little son’s bed.

The most serious incident occurred in 1996 when he was arrested for carrying heroin, cocaine and an unloaded Magnum. He was sentenced to three years of probation and forced to undergo mandatory drug tests that he regularly skipped, which led him to spend six months in jail. He did not learn his lesson. In 1999, he skipped another drug test and this time, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison, although he ultimately spent less than a year behind bars. “You could just feel the evil in the air [...] it was kind of like just being in a really bad neighborhood,” he said on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast. “There was no opportunity there. There was only threats.” The grim atmosphere did not stop the actor from getting involved in the prison community: by Christmas 1999, he was directing its Christmas choir group.

Life after prison: The fact that his erratic life has not taken an excessive toll on his career is due to his great professionalism on set. Despite all his misdeeds he has never missed a shoot nor has fought with his co-stars, who have always supported him unconditionally. When he was released from prison, it was Mel Gibson who underwrote Downey’s liability insurance, as no insurance company was willing to provide the policy, which led the actor to lose a role in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda.

The support of Gibson — another actor who is no stranger to scandals — allowed him to mount his comeback, and Downey was even nominated for an Oscar for his role in Tropic Thunder. Despite this, many were upset when they found out that he had been cast as Iron Man — not because Downey isn’t as equally as charming as Tony Stark nor through any lack of talent, as his proved by his performances in Chaplin or Wonder Boys but because his excesses with drugs and alcohol made him the opposite of what was expected of a superhero aimed at all audiences. But the risk paid off. Downey became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And since there is life beyond Marvel, this year he is one of the favorites to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Oppenheimer.

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RONDA CHURCHILL (AFP via Getty Images)

Mark Wahlberg

Prison time: 45 days

When he called himself Marky Mark and was a rapper and model, he was the official bad guy of the entertainment industry. In the 1990s, his blasé smile competed for attention with his abs and the underwear he advertised in the iconic Calvin Klein ad. Wahlberg was not pretending: he had been a gang member from the age of 13 and already committed a number of violent and racist incidents.

At 13 years of age, he and his friends threw stones and shouted racist insults at a field trip of Black students. A couple of years later, he assaulted two Vietnamese men to steal a case of beer. He smashed a baseball bat over one’s head while shouting xenophobic expletives and hit the other in the face with such vehemence that he was blinded in one eye. He received a two-year sentence, but only spent 45 days in a correctional facility. An experience that changed his life. “I realized what were the positive things that would help me be successful, have a future, my freedom, a career and, hopefully, a family. It was when I recovered my faith, I went to Mass again and began to work as a productive member of our community,” he told EL PAÍS.

Today, Wahlberg is a devout Catholic and devoted family man who has consolidated his place in Hollywood thanks to movies such as Boogie Nights, for which he earned an Oscar nomination (even though he now regrets taking the part), Ted, and Transformers. The former bad boy who went on to become the highest-paid actor in Hollywood is also a savvy producer, as he demonstrated with projects such as Entourage or Boardwalk Empire. Wahlberg is also a passionate entrepreneur. His name is behind a chain of hamburgers, gyms, sports clothing and even bottled water. Today Walhberg is synonymous with cinema... for all audiences.

The 94th Academy Awards - Arrivals
Variety (Penske Media via Getty Images)

Wesley Snipes

Prison time: two and a half years

He had what it took to be one of the great stars of the 21st century. He proved his worth as an action hero in Demolition Man and Passenger 57, and showed he could do comedy in moves such as White Men Can’t Jump and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (America’s answer to the Australian film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). He starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever about race discrimination and was a tormented lover in Mike Figgins’ One Night Stand. But no role made him more of a star than Blade (1998), where he played a vampire hunter.

But his popularity did not stop news about his bad behavior from making headlines. Jennifer López said that he flirted with her and tried to kiss her while they were filming Money Train. He reportedly did not take the rejection well. Nor was he very welcoming to Ryan Reynolds on Blade: Trinity. Accordingt to reports, he refused to speak to him on the shoot.

But that was not why Snipes went to prison. In 2008, the actor was sentenced to 36 months behind bars for not filing his income tax returns between 1999 and 2004. He owed around $2 million in taxes. Snipes served time in a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

He was released in 2013 after spending two and a half years in prison and soon realized that his old friends were not going to turn their backs on him. Sylvester Stallone — who had offered him a role in the first of The Expendables movies asked him to star in The Expendables 3. Snipes played a character recently released from prison — pure cinema verité. Nor did Spike Lee leave him in the lurch. He gave him a role in Chi-raq.

"Der Geschmack der kleinen Dinge (Umami)" Premiere In Berlin
Tristar Media (Getty Images)

Gérard Depardieu

Prison time: Three weeks

The life of actor Gérard Depardieu could be that of any of the characters he played in the first years of his career. His autobiography Ca s’est fait comme ça begins with a terrible memory: his mother’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent his birth: “I survived all the violence that my poor mother inflicted on herself with knitting needles.” As a teenager he was a street criminal who prostituted himself to men and stole jewelry and shoes from corpses. A spiral that led him behind bars at just 16 years of age, after he was caught stealing a car.

After being released, he continued to commit crimes, but a talent scout who saw his potential and put him on the path to stardom. The French actor’s busy career hasn’t let up despite the scandals that have been following him for years. In 1991, the actor admitted in an interview to raping women as a young man — a revelation that destroyed his chances of winning the Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac.

In France, they claimed the actor was mistranslated, and Jack Lang, then Minister of Culture, said it was a “low blow” against one of the country’s luminaries. Since then, French authorities have continued to defend the actor. Depardieu has been accused of sexual violence by 13 women, and faces four sex assault complaints. But more than 50 artists signed a letter in Le Figaro, denouncing the “lynching” of the actor. A few days before its publication, French President Macron said that he was under no circumstances considering stripping the actor of the Legion of Honor, the highest French distinction, and that he was not going to take part in any “manhunt.”

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KENA BETANCUR (AFP via Getty Images)

Lindsay Lohan

Prison time: 14 days

Films like The Parent Trap made her one of Disney’s most promising stars, movies such as Freaky Friday turned her into a teen idol, while Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, where she costarred with Meryl Streep, confirmed her place in Hollywood. But Lohan’s nighttime antics got in the way, and in the second-half of the 2000s she was part of the paparazzi’s favorite trio, alongside Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

By then, she was no longer Lindsay Lohan, she was LiLo. Her battle with addiction, frequent car accidents and the fact she was bisexual made for constant tabloid headlines. In May 2007, she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Two months later, she was arrested again for possession of cocaine. It was the beginning of a succession of arrests, rehab stays and parole violations.

She appeared in court more than 20 times and violated her probation on four occasions, racking up a six-month prison sentence in the process. Due to overcrowding in Californian women’s prisons, she was only behind bars for two weeks. She spent another 35 days under house arrest and did 60 days of community service in the Los Angeles County morgue.

As a result of her constant visits to the courthouse, she lost several roles, including that of Linda Lovelace in Lovelace, which ended up going to Amanda Seyfried. Suddenly everything she did was met with fierce criticism. In 2013, Oprah Winfrey tried to help her with the documentary series Lindsay, but what was meant to chronicle her comeback became her umpteenth failure.

Nor have her efforts in the fashion industry (she collaborated with Ungaro) and the hospitality business been successful. However, her Netflix Christmas movie, Falling for Christmas, had better results, and the platform has confirmed that it will be working on new projects with the actress. At the cinema, her latest role was a very brief cameo in the v, the film that made her a global star.

2024 FAN EXPO New Orleans
Erika Goldring (Getty Images)

Danny Trejo

Prison time: 11 years

For fans of Breaking Bad, he is the guy whose head ends on the back of a turtle. He is also, according to a study, the actor who has died the most times on screen — perhaps because he is one of the most prolific actors. He has more than 400 credits in the IMDB film database and has 30 pending projects. Perhaps his name says less than his weathered face, imposing tattoos and long hair — a look that means he is almost exclusively cast as a criminal or prisoner. Indeed he was a prisoner in real life, as told in the documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo. “It’s a miracle because I wasn’t supposed to get out of the 1960s,” he told the BBC’s Newsbeat radio program.

Trejo, now 79, began using hard drugs when he was just a child, and in the 1960s he was in and out of prison several times, for different charges. After an armed robbery, he spent 11 years in San Quentin, where he became the prison’s best boxer.

After leaving prison he decided to turn his life around. He worked as a gardener, labor foreman and extra. It was on set, when Eric Roberts — Julia Robert’s brother — asked him to be his boxing coach for the movie Runaway Train. His work was so impressive that directors and casting agents began to recommend him more and more. Since then, he has only returned to prison to give motivational talks and inspire young people that “it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you finish.”

eOne Presents The UK Premiere of "Dungeons & Dragons - Honour Among Thieves"
Kate Green (Getty Images for eOne)

Michelle Rodriguez

Prison time: 20 days

To play the boxer in Girlfight (1999), Rodriguez had to compete with more than 300 actresses to win her debut role. Since then, she has played a number of tough women, whether driving dangerously in the Fast and Furious movie saga, fighting zombies in Resident Evil or exacting justice in S.W.A.T. But Rodriguez isn’t just fast and furious on screen. In 2002, she was arrested for assaulting her roommate, although the charges were dropped after the alleged victim refused to testify in court. A year later, she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and hit-and-run offenses, and the following year, she was caught driving with a suspended driver’s license while under the influence. She spent two days in jail.

Her most significant incident came while she was filming Lost, where she played Ana Lucia. Again, she drove at a speed that would have thrilled Toretto, but did not please the Hawaiian authorities or Disney, the owner of the TV network ABC. Despite being one of the lead characters of the second season, she was dropped from Lost. In 2007, she was arrested again for violating probation and sentenced to 180 days in prison, of which she served only 18.

Beyond being cut from Lost, her time in prison did not affect her career. Instead it fostered her image as a dangerous woman, which is the inspiration for almost all her characters. After leaving the ABC series, she starred in Avatar and continued her triumphant journey in the Fast and the Furious saga, even demanding that her character be given more substance, and for more women to be cast. “I hope they decide to show some love to the women of the franchise on the next one. Or I just might have to say goodbye to a loved franchise,” she posted on Instagram.

31st Annual MovieGuide Awards Gala
Olivia Wong (WireImage)

Lori Loughlin

Prison time: Two months

Aunt Becky from Full House was another of the rich and famous people involved in Operation Varsity Blues, as was her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli. The pair was accused of paying $500,000 to include their daughters — Bella and influencer Olivia Jade, who is dating Jacob Elordi — in the University of Southern California rowing team, even though neither of them had ever rowed before. “I went along with a plan to give my daughters an unfair advantage in the college admissions process,” Loughlin admitted at trial.

After pleading guilty, Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison, a fine of $150,000, plus two years of probation and a total of 100 hours of community service. Her husband was sentenced to five months and fined $250,000.

After serving time, the actress deleted her social media accounts and kept a low profile. She has only been seen in public on a couple of occasions: at a Kris Jenner party and in a photo posted by John Stamos on Instagram, which delighted Full House followers. Her career has also taken a sluggish turn. Hallmark canceled her series When Calls the Heart and she did not take part in the final season of Full House. The conservative network Great American Family (GAC), did however, open its doors to her: she has already starred in three of its productions.

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