Tragedies And Personal Losses Have Made Mark Ruffalo Stronger


For actor Mark Ruffalo, a cascade of major traumas left him deeply shaken and reeling. Somehow, though, Ruffalo managed to overcome all these crises and restore his physical and emotional health. Today, he is flourishing. How did he do it?

Ruffalo Lost His Best Friend To Suicide In 1994

Ruffalo dealt with depression from an early age, plus dyslexia and ADHD. Even as a youngster, he felt uncomfortably different from his peers, which can be devastating for a child. “One of the things that was always very difficult for me was grade school,” Ruffalo observed in an interview with Parade. “Feeling like I was strange and unique and freakish. I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere.”

There were some things in his life that made him feel guardedly hopeful, though. One of them was acting. Ruffalo seemed to have an aptitude for it, which he cultivated as a teenage student at the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles. As he told Parade, “I thought, ‘This is it. I have my purpose in life.’”

He also had one cherished person to turn to who could truly understand his battle with depression: Ruffalo’s best friend since junior high school, Michael. He grappled with depression, too. Whenever Ruffalo reached out to him, he found a reliable fount of comfort, camaraderie, and compassion. Michael was Ruffalo’s only sounding board, a real soulmate.

Then, in 1994, when Ruffalo was 27, he was stunned to his core by an unimaginable tragedy: Michael took his own life. As bereft as Ruffalo was about losing someone so special to him, it ultimately made him reject suicide as a solution to his own anguish.

“When he died, it rocked me out of a dark depression. The moment he left, I realized that death wasn’t an escape, that suicide wasn’t an answer. I understood the value of life. Acting became my way of addressing it,” Ruffalo explained to Parade.

His Resilience Grew After Going Through Brain Tumor Surgery

Ruffalo steadily gained renown as a talented actor. His performance in the film You Can Count On Me in 2000 generated widespread acclaim for him, the kind he longed for during years when he endured far more rejections than successes.

What reversed Ruffalos fortunes two years earlier was his work in a play titled This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan. His warmly-lauded role in that New York production was followed by solid big-screen appearances: Safe Men (1998) and Ride With the Devil (1999).

Ruffalo’s personal life also came together at last. He wed actress Sunrise Coigney and they welcomed a son named Keen. By 2001, Ruffalo must have felt that the quagmire of problems facing him was firmly in the past, but it was not to be. Just when everything was going so smoothly for Ruffalo, he had a peculiar and unsettling experience.

Mark Ruffalo (L) in tan suit touching bellies with his pregnant wife, who is wearing a pink and green dress
Ruffalo and Coigney on the red carpet shortly before the birth of their first child. (Photo by Getty Images)

He reminisced about it to Parade. “A few weeks after my son was born,” he recalled, “I had a bad dream and woke up in tears. In the dream, I knew I had a brain tumor. I had it checked out—that’s how real the dream was. I was told I had an acoustic neuroma, a tumor. It was terrifying.”

Fate still had Ruffalo in its cruel, unyielding grasp. He needed surgery to remove that sizable tumor. Coming on the heels of his son’s birth, it was especially frightening. Ruffalo’s wife and baby counted on him. If anything happened to him, what would they do?

The Surgery Threatened His Acting Career

There is never a good time to have a dire medical situation like Ruffalo’s. This, however, came at a genuinely inopportune moment in his burgeoning career. Things were just falling into place for the actor, but everything was at risk of being derailed because of something totally beyond his control—and possibly beyond that of his doctors at NYU Medical Center.

Ruffalo had recently concluded filming a movie with Robert Redford, The Last Castle. He finally was getting the attention of influential cinema executives such as DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, who told Ruffalo, according to New York magazine, “You’re amazing in this movie, we see big things for you.” The marquee, high-priced movie offers started coming in.

What Ruffalo was reluctant to reveal to Katzenberg (or to other industry insiders) was the fact that shortly before, he had undergone a marathon 10 hours of delicate surgery to extricate the tumor. It was a tricky procedure that Imperiled the hearing in one of Ruffalo’s ears, along with the movement in half his face. No one could tell him with any certainty if that paralysis would be long-lasting.

The good thing was that the tumor proved to be benign. However, the downside was that it left one side of Ruffalo’s face—an actor’s most treasured asset—immobilized.

Ruffalo’s nightmarish situation spilled over into his career. He had a role in director M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming film Signs, starring Mel Gibson, lined up. Trouble was that with just part of his face moving, Ruffalo really couldn’t do it. Unwilling to throw in the towel on such a marvelous opportunity, he beseeched Shyamalan to alter his part, states New York magazine, and have the character he was going to portray be in recovery from a motorcycle crash.

Ruffalo did have to scrap the part on doctors’ orders. The aftermath of his operation, which included taking potent medications that made his thinking so muddled that he could not read a map or even tie a knot, got the upper hand, at least for the moment.

Mercifully, the facial paralysis eased. When Ruffalo and his wife were in their car, one of his eyes began to twitch unexpectedly. He was almost able to close it normally. It was a thrilling miracle in the making for him. He and Sunrise exulted together out of sheer delight and relief.

His recovery required a whole year. Ruffalo’s career then got back on track with meaty film roles in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In the Cut, and My Life Without Me.

Amazingly, he was able to reflect on the excruciating upheaval caused by his tumor and find a kernel of optimism. The comments Ruffalo made to Parade about what he went through—and how he chose to view it—define the attitude that kept him afloat during his most agonizing setbacks.

“Looking back,” he said, “everything that seemed a curse was really the best possible thing, even my tumor. I had a whole year with my son and wife, every waking hour. There is living you’re forced to do when you’re ill, a constant expanding of what you thought you were capable of being. I wouldn’t give any of it back. I’ve learned that even in sorrow, there’s joy.”

His Brother Was Killed Under Mysterious Circumstances In 2008

Ruffalo would get brutally knocked down by tragedy yet again on December 8, 2008. On that day, his 39-year-old brother, Scott, a hairdresser, died. A week earlier, he had sustained a gunshot to the head in his Beverly Hills apartment.

According to The Los Angeles Times, ”Beverly Hills police questioned Shaha Mishaal Adham, 26, and her boyfriend, Brian Scofield, about the incident after the couple turned themselves in a week after the shooting. Adham was booked on suspicion of attempted murder and initially held without bail.”

The article states that Adham said she went to Ruffalo’s home for the keys to her vehicle. She claimed he mentioned something about Russian roulette to her. “Then she heard a gunshot.”

The Times account continued: “She was released late the next day after her attorney, Ronald Richards, said he was able to convince police Adham was present but not responsible for the shooting.”

A second Times story said that Ruffalo’s death was ruled a homicide by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. Adham’s attorney insisted that an eyewitness “saw [Ruffalo] pull the trigger.”

Five years later, in 2013, HuffPost reported that “A key witness, Shaha Mishaal Adham, who was in the house at the time of the shooting, was later reported to have died of a drug overdose, and to this day, the case remains unsolved.”

The troubling mystery of exactly what happened to Scott Ruffalo and why has never been resolved.

Ruffalo Turned To Meditation To Cope with Anxiety

The tragic death of his brother was perhaps the greatest test of all for Ruffalo’s mental stamina. He told Rolling Stone in 2015, “I was sort of feeling anxious all the time, and was starting to get really desperate.”

Mark Ruffalo gives a peace sign while wearing a black suit against an off-white backdrop
Ruffalo posing on the red carpet in 2008, not long after his brother’s tragic death. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Eager for a remedy, Ruffalo turned to a friend who was formerly ”a longtime drug addict.” That friend, who found meditation highly calming and restorative, sold Ruffalo on it.

Meditation did indeed soothe Ruffalo’s mind: “My work started to change, my luck started to change. The way the world looked to me changed. Like, with all the crazy shit going on in the world, I actually have an enormous amount of hope.”

Ruffalo must have needed every bit of serenity to cope with a bizarre new problem. According to The Wall Street Journal, he found himself confronting false reports that were published by various news organizations saying that he was “placed on a terror watch list by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security for organizing screenings of Gasland, a documentary about fracking, the practice of drilling for natural gas using a hydraulic fracturing process, which some allege contaminates ground water.”

He denounced those rumors as “fantastical,” adding that the story had “snowballed.”

What was accurate, though, was Ruffalo’s passionate commitment to the issue of protecting the environment and keeping it pristine and unspoiled for his children’s sake.

Mark Ruffalo (L), his three children, and his wife, Sunrise Coigney, posing on the red carpet
Ruffalo, Coigney, and their three children on the red carpet in 2019. (DFree/

In fact, Ruffalo’s advocacy for fracking to be banned was so articulate and impressive that some people even wondered if he was interested in running for elective political office. Although he did not go for it at the time, he did not completely dismiss the idea. As he told Rolling Stone, “We need real people who’ve had real lives [in office].”

If anyone has led a “real life,” it’s Mark Ruffalo. He has been pummeled by one heartbreak after another. He could easily have knuckled under to despair. Instead, Ruffalo triumphed, thanks to his fierce desire to steadily keep moving forward and a stubborn belief that tomorrow would be a better day. Ironically, the catastrophes he went through only galvanized his will to survive.

To paraphrase Ruffalo’s own words, even in sorrow, he found joy.


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