“I’ve always looked at my career as an athlete would look at his,” said Mark Wahlberg, star of this weekend’s thriller Contraband. “I won’t play forever. Some don’t know when to walk away, but the smart ones do.”

Wahlberg has proven himself to be one of the smart ones. In a career that dates back 20 years, he has moved from strength to strength.

His first taste of success came as the titular lead rapper of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Their 1991 hit Good Vibrations was a highpoint, but just two years later, Wahlberg walked away, leaving the Funky Bunch to fend for themselves.

Streamlining the Marky Mark moniker to his birth name, he took on his first role in front of the camera (that is if you don’t count his short lived career as an underwear model for Calvin Klein). Roles in The Basketball Diaries (opposite his future The Departed star Leonardo DiCaprio) and Fear, where he played what one writer called “a teenaged Travis Bickle” got him notice, but it was Boogie Nights that made him a movie star.

 

The role of Dirk Diggler, a naïve man with physical charms sucked into the dark underbelly of the 1970s Californian porn industry, showed his range (among other things) but he wasn’t the first choice for the role. DiCaprio was offered the part but turned it down because he was already committed to Titanic. He suggested his Basketball Diaries co-star Wahlberg.

The movie was a hit, but a certain prosthetic got almost as much attention as Wahlberg’s performance. He still has the 13-inch rubber prop, which he keeps in a safe at his mother’s home, otherwise, he says, “mom would… put it on the end of her Dustbuster thinking it came with the vacuum cleaner.”

Since then Three Kings, The Perfect Storm, The Italian Job, Shooter, We Own the Night, Planet of the Apes and Four Brothers have all been box office hits. His work in The Departed brought him the best notices of his career to date plus an Oscar nomination and The Fighter (which he also produced) was an artistic triumph.

Despite all the spot-on choices, like many actors he’s turned down some important roles. Can you imagine him as Linus in Ocean’s 11? Or how about Brokeback Mountain? That part went to Jake Gyllenhaal, who earned an Oscar nod for his work.

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