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Famous Flameouts

What were the most famous flameouts of all time? For my purposes here, I will define a "flameout" as a spectacular failure: a burnout, meltdown, explosion, supernova, flop, dud, etc. Please keep in mind that the opinions expressed here are one man's, and are thus subjective.

Who experienced the most spectacular flameouts, burnouts, meltdowns and explosions? I will consider such experiences in sports, music, the arts, poetry and other writing, science, technology, religion, business, government, the military, law, medicine, exploration, comedy, movies, TV and other forms of entertainment. Please keep in mind that sometimes a spectacular flameout can set up an even more spectacular comeback.

Related pages: Famous Comebacks

compiled by Michael R. Burch

In the year 1006, a new "guest star" was observed by Chinese astronomers. The "guest star" was brighter than a crescent moon and was even visible during the day. What caused the "guest star" to suddenly appear in the sky? It was the result of what we now call a supernova. But the "guest star" quickly began to dim and was no longer visible a year later.

Cold fusion was going to save the world, by producing the benefits of nuclear fusion at room temperatures. But it turned out to be a dud.

Tulips were once worth their weight in gold, during the Great Tulip Mania. By 1636 the tulip bulb had become the fourth leading export product of the Netherlands, and the most speculative. The price of tulips skyrocketed because of speculation in tulip futures among people who had never even seen the bulbs and had no use for them other than speculation. Tulip mania reached its peak during the winter of 1636–37, when some bulbs were reportedly changing hands ten times per day. No deliveries were ever made to fulfill any of these contracts, because in February 1637 tulip bulb contract prices collapsed abruptly and the trade of tulips ground to a halt.

Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. But he ended up holding 1,093 U.S. patents and is now known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park." So he had one of the more spectacular comebacks on record.

Sappho of Lesbos

Gleyre Le Coucher de Sappho by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre

Sappho of Lesbos is perhaps the first great female poet still known to us today, and she remains one of the very best poets of all time, regardless of gender. She is so notorious that we get our terms "sapphic" and "lesbian" from her name and island of residence. But most of her poetry was lost and survives only in fragments today. We almost lost her work and probably would have, if not for other writers quoting her words and thus preserving them. Later, diligent archeologists discovered fragments of her poems in unusual places, such as ancient Egyptian rubbish pits and even mummy wrappings! Today, as you can see from the two stellar epigrams below, Sappho remains a timeless treasure:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
a wind on desolate mountains
uprooting oaks.

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by  Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

Hitler's Third Reich was supposed to reign a thousand years. But it lasted only twelve years and left Germany in rubble.

Albert Einstein's childhood nickname was Depperte ("the Dopey One") because he didn't talk until he was four years old. Einstein was supposed to take over the family business, but it failed in 1894. In 1895, he failed to pass the general admissions exam for Zürich Polytechnic—although he did very well in physics and math—and had to go to a secondary school for a year to brush up on his history, geography and French. After Einstein was admitted to Zürich Polytechnic the following year, a Professor Pernet advised him to give up physics, saying: "There is no lack of eagerness and goodwill in your work, but a lack of capability." Another professor, Hermann Minkowski, referred to his pupil as a "lazy dog," perhaps because Einstein skipped so many lectures. After graduating with a teaching degree and less-than-stellar grades in 1900, Einstein was unable to obtain a teaching position despite a two-year search, and ended up taking a job as a lowly third-class patent clerk in 1902. The head of the patent department considered him to be "lacking in technical training." He was passed over for a promotion until he "fully mastered machine technology." But then in 1905 the 26-year-old Einstein would publish four revolutionary scientific papers, including his theory of special relativity and the famous e=mc2 equation.

The Divine Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde may be the most notorious "bad boy" in the annals of poetry and literature. He was flamboyantly gay at a time when polite society was prim, proper and violently homophobic. As a result, he was sentenced to hard labor at Reading Gaol and died soon after his release. But his writing continues to survive and flourish. Wilde is justly famous today for his disdain for "respectability" and dull and dulling conformity, as his witty epigrams prove:

Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.
I can resist everything except temptation.
I believe God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.
Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.
There is no sin except stupidity.
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Voltaire was hounded by the religious authorities of his day. His books and pamphlets were publicly burned. Voltaire, a champion of free speech and the right to think independently, was forced to use aliases when he wrote, to protect his own life and freedom. He was driven from France into exile. But he never gave up, and by the end of his life when he finally returned to Paris, Voltaire was hailed by an adoring public like a conquering hero. Voltaire is now considered to be one of the greatest writers and philosophers of all time, and an ultra-important voice in the creation of modern democracies with freedom of religion, speech and dissent.

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team for a "lack of skill." He did reasonably well after that.

Tiger Woods seemed down and out for the count. Once considered to be the world's greatest golfer, or in the top two with Jack Nicklaus, by 2017 the former Big Cat had dropped to 1,199th in the world rankings. Starting the 2018 season, at age 42, after having gone through four back surgeries, including spinal fusion, the question was not whether Tiger could drive a golf ball 300+ yards, but whether he could ever again swing a club again without debilitating pain. He got off to a slow start in 2018, but began to gather momentum. When he tied for sixth in the 2018 British Open, it was his highest finish in a major since 2013. Then he almost won the 2018 PGA Championship, finishing second with his best-ever final round score in a major, a superb 64. In a few months he had risen 1,173 positions in the world rankings, to 26th. He was 20th in the Fedex Cup rankings. And the "tiger roars" of his myriad fans were louder than ever.

So how good was Tiger Woods before his health woes? Well he has the six best adjusted Vardon Trophy scoring averages of all time, and eight of the top ten. He won nine Vardon trophies and was the PGA player of the year eleven times in a seventeen year span. No player of his era came close to matching Tiger Woods in scoring, tournaments won, or majors won. In 2018, playing against golfers nearly half his age, after spinal fusion, Tiger was once again roaring and threatening to win another major. If he does, it will be one of the greatest comebacks of all time. But even if he doesn't, it still is.

Marilyn Monroe was dumped by 20th Century Fox because she wasn't pretty enough or talented enough to be an actress!

Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee was a famous burlesque performer known far and wide for her stripteases. It was said that her first striptease was accidental, occurring when the strap of her gown broke and it fell to the floor during one of her acts. She went on to develop a more casual style of striptease, emphasizing the "tease" and incorporating humor. She was frequently arrested during police raids on her performances, which would be considered to be quite tame and in good taste today. But she was also a dancer, actress, producer, author, and playwright whose 1957 memoir was made into the stage musical and film Gypsy.

Bill Gates was a college dropout. His first business product was a failure called Traf-O-Data.

The computer was roundly dismissed by IBM, whose CEO Thomas Watson said in 1943: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." (IBM did manage to sell more than five computers.) Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, concurred: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." (DEC was not as successful as IBM at embracing the personal computer and has never been heard from since.)

In 1946, another new invention was roundly dismissed by 20th Century Fox when Darryl Zanuck said: "Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." That did not turn out to be the most accurate of predictions.

Decca Records rejected the Beatles, saying: "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. They have no future in show business."

Elvis Presley was fired after one performance by the Grand Ole Opry. The show's talent manager, Jim Denny, told him: "You ain't goin' nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin' a truck." Elvis would soon be known as The King.

Ulysses S. Grant was a terrible soldier. He drank too much, fell into depression and quit the Army. Then he went home and failed at business as well. When the Civil War broke out, he was asked to rejoin the Army and he eventually Union's top general. After leading the Union to victory, he was twice elected president of the United States. His Memoirs became the best-selling book in American history to that point.

Abraham Lincoln grew up in meager circumstances, failed at business three times, and apparently had a nervous breakdown. He lost when he ran for Congress, lost twice when he ran for the Senate, and lost as a vice presidential candidate. But he persevered and is now one of four presidents immortalized on Mount Rushmore. He is considered by many to be the greatest American president. Oh, and he was also Ulysses S. Grant's boss!

Walt Disney was once fired because he "lacked imagination" and "had no good ideas." After starting his own company, he suffered major financial setbacks for the better part of a decade, including losing rights to his popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character. Disney was $4 million in debt by the early 1930s. That was a LOT of money in those days! He reportedly couldn't pay his rent and had to eat dog food. With barely enough cash to finance the project, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938. The blockbuster movie made $8 million during its initial release and was the highest-grossing movie with sound to date. It remains a top ten moneymaker in inflation-adjusted dollars. 

After his first audition a casting director advised Sidney Poitier: "Why don't you stop wasting people's time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?" Poitier went on to win Oscars for Lilies of the Field and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.

Fred Astaire's first screen test did not result in rave reviews. MGM's testing director of MGM noted: "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little." David O. Selznick, who commissioned the test, stated in a memo: "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test." Astaire, who went on to become an Oscar-nominated actor, singer and dancer, reportedly kept the negative note in his Beverly Hills home to remind him of where he came from.

Steven Spielberg was rejected three times by the film school he wanted to attend, at the University of Southern California. He went to another college but soon dropped out. He did okay after that.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a television reporter at age 22 because she was deemed "unfit for TV."

Lucille Ball was widely regarded as a B-movie actress, and not a very successful one at that. But she became a comedy star of the highest magnitude and the first woman to run a major television studio, Desilu. She also won four Emmys and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors.

The first time Jerry Seinfeld appeared at a comedy club, he froze and was booed off the stage.

Henry Ford failed at three different businesses before striking gold with automobiles.

In 1955, Harlan Sanders was broke. A newly-built interstate had bypassed Corbin, Kentucky., where "Colonel Sanders" had been cooking chicken at his restaurant/motel for two decades. But the resourceful Sanders sold his building and started franchising his chicken restaurant concept. Within five years he had 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken locations.

A young woman was living on welfare and struggling as a single mother. When she applied for assistance, she described her economic status as being as "poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless." She lost her mother, became clinically depressed and considered suicide. She had written a novel, but it was rejected 12 times by publishers. When the book finally did get published, she was advised to get a day job because there was little money in children's books. The starving writer was J. K. Rowling and she has since sold over 450 million Harry Potter worldwide! She would be the world's first billionaire author, if she hadn't given so much money to charities.

Stephen King's novel Carrie was rejected 30 times by publishers, so he threw it in the trash. He has since sold more than 300 million books.

In 1997 a once-successful company was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Nothing was going right. Its stock had dropped below a dollar per share, making it a "penny stock." The company's glory days were obviously over. Then the company brought back its founder and found new life. In 2018 it became the first company anywhere in the world to be valued at one trillion dollars. The company is Apple.

The Apple founder who returned to help save the company was Steve Jobs. Actually, he was a co-founder of Apple, along with Steve Wozniak. They had attended the same high school, Homestead High School, which had strong ties to Silicon Valley. Wozniak designed and built the original Apple I computer in 1976. The computer was "brainstormed" in the garage of the house owned by Jobs' adoptive parents, since at the time he and Wozniak had "no money." Jobs was described as "barefoot" and "hippie-like." Indeed the name Apple was taken from from the apple orchard of the All One Farm commune in Oregon where Jobs had once lived while experimenting with psychedelics. Fortunately, the Apple I, Apple II and Macintosh were hits, and the founders' finances improved. But in 1985 there was a power struggle at Apple. Jobs, who lost the tug-of-war, faced being virtually powerless within the company he founded. So he left Apple to form NeXT Inc. Later, Jobs would also found the company that became Pixar. (Disney would purchase Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion, making Jobs Disney's largest shareholder, with 7% of the company's stock.) In 1997, as Apple continued to founder, the decision was made to purchase NeXT for $427 million and bring Jobs back as CEO. The rest, as they say, is history.

Muhammad Ali had been on the top of the boxing world. In 1960 he won an Olympic gold medal. In 1965 he won the heavyweight championship of the world, in a stunning upset over the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston. But in 1967, after refusing to serve in the US military due to his objections to the Vietnam War, Ali was stripped of his championship and his boxing license. He was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000. Although Ali did not serve time, he would not be allowed to fight again until 1970. But Ali had been robbed of his prime years and he lost his 1971 bid for the heavyweight crown to Joe Frazier. In 1973 he lost a fight to Ken Norton in which his jaw was broken. He appeared to be washed-up, a has-been. But then in quick succession Ali won rematches with Norton and Frazier, earning him the "right" to be knocked out by the reigning heavyweight champion, the hulking George Foreman. But in the celebrated "Rumble in the Jungle" a middle-aged Ali rallied to defeat Foreman and suddenly he was back on top of the boxing world again. Ali would go undefeated until 1978, when at age 36 and obviously not the fighter he once was, he would lose the championship to Leon Spinks. But that same year Ali went into training and recovered enough of his skills to defeat Spinks and become the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world. By the time he retired, Ali was not only the most famous boxer on the planet, but the most famous athlete and probably the most-recognized human being around the world. He truly was "The People's Champion."

Twenty years later, in 1994 at the age of 45, George Foreman went up against heavyweight champion Michael Moorer and somehow won to reclaim the title he had lost to Ali.

Richard Nixon retired from politics after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, saying: “For 16 years you've had a lot of fun. Just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore!" The 49-year-old Nixon had recently lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy, sweating a storm during televised debates. But the man known as Tricky Dick unretired and ran for president again in 1968. He won, only to go down in flames over Vietnam and Watergate. Sometimes winning may not be the best policy!

Lance Armstrong had an intense battle with cancer. He was given a 40% chance of living and had to undergo brain surgery. But he came back to win the grueling Tour de France bike race a record seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005. 

Michael Jordan won three NBA championships, then walked away from the game in 1993 to play minor league baseball. But in 1995 he returned to the NBA and went on to win three more championship rings, including "one for the thumb." He is now generally considered to be the greatest NBA player of all time, but probably wouldn't be if he hadn't come back and picked up where he left off.

Shortly after defending teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb—in a sensational, headline-grabbing trial—the famous attorney Clarence Darrow announced his retirement. (Darrow managed to keep the defendents from being executed and he received a great deal of criticism as a result.) But within a year, Darrow was back in the courtroom for the famed Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which he defended John Scopes for teaching evolution in his classroom. Darrow lost the case, but it was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The artist Marcel Duchamp retired to become a professional chess player. However, during his “chess years” Duchamp was secretly working on a new piece of art from 1946-1966 that only his wife knew Etant Donnés existed. In 1969, a year after Duchamp’s death, the work—a pastoral image of a naked woman as viewed through a peephole—was unveiled to the public. 

In 1971, Frank Sinatra announced that he was retiring. His sales had dwindled and popular music had moved beyond his "crooner" style to acts like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. But the Chairman of the Board didn't stay retired for long. In 1973, Sinatra started recording again (with an album and television special appropriately titled Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back). He scored one of his biggest hits with “New York, New York” in 1980. Sinatra's second career lasted more than 20 years, until his final professional performance in 1994.

Sherlock Holmes was killed off by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1893. Doyle "retired" Holmes by having him fall to his death from a cliff during a fight with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty). Doyle wanted more time to devote to historical novels, and had become sick of Holmes. But his fans wanted more, so eight years later Doyle wrote a Holmes prequel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Still, fans clamored for more and finally Doyle caved to publisher pressure, reviving Holmes and explaining away his death in a 1903 novel. Interestingly, Robert Downey Jr. played Sherlock Holmes during his personal comeback for drug arrests, jail and rehab.

The Buffalo Bills recovered from a 32 point deficit to win a 1993 playoff game against the Houston Oilers. 

The Boston Red Sox won the very first World Series and won four more by 1918. However, they did not win another world championship for 86 years. In 2004, the Sox played their hated rival, the New York Yankees, in the American League Championship series. The Red Sox began the series by losing the first three games. No team in Major League Baseball history had ever comeback from a 3-0 deficit to win a postseason series. Yet, the Sox won four straight games to win the series and then won four straight against the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series in 86 years.

Yoichiro Honda was passed over for an engineering job at Toyota, so he founded the rival car company that bears his name.

George W. Bush was a C student who managed to become president despite his struggles with English grammar.

Other Notable Flameouts and Comebacks

Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc.)
The Bee-Gees
Garth Brooks
Celine Dion
Robert Downey Jr.
Brett Favre
Michael J. Fox
France after WWII
Germany after WWII
Great Britain after WWII
Josh Hamilton (baseball player)
Ariana Huffington (founder of The Huffington Post)
Hugh Jackman (fired from a Seven-Eleven)
Japan after WWII
R. H. Macy
Elvis Presely
Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop)
Barbara Streisand
Dave Thomas (CEO of Wendy's)
Tina Turner
Kurt Warner
The World (after various ice ages, various plagues, crusades and other "holy wars," colonialism, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, etc.)

Famous Upsets

The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" with the US hockey team beating the heavily favored USSR team for the Olympic gold medal
The 1969 "Miracle Mets" or "Amazin' Mets" came out of nowhere to win the National League pennant and the World Series; the Mets had never finished higher than ninth in a ten-team league
A horse named Upset upsetting Man O' War in the Sanford Memorial Stakes; Man O' War had never been beaten and Upset was a 100-1 underdog
Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston in their first fight
Muhammad Ali over George Foreman in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle"
Muhammad Ali over Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla in Manila" (well, okay, Ali was favored 8-5 in this one)
The New York Jets and Broadway Joe Namath over the Baltimore Colts (+17) in the 1969 Super Bowl (the biggest upset in Super Bowl history)
The 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, coached by Jim Valvano, defeating the heavily favored Houston Cougars with Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon and Clyde "the Glide" Drexler
Buster Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, knocking out an undefeated Iron Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship of the world
The New York Giants and Eli Manning winning the 2007 Super Bowl over the undefeated New England Patriots and Tom Brady
Jimmy Carter charging from behind to win the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, and eventually the presidency
Appalachian State defeating the number five Michigan Wolverines (+27) in 2007 by a nail-biting score of 34-32
The 2004 Boston Red Sox finally lifting the 86-year "curse of the Bambino" by winning the American League pennant and World Series

Famous Dropouts

Dan Aykroyd
Julian Assange
Glenn Beck
Richard Branson
James Cameron
Jim Carrey
Coco Chanel
George Clooney
Sean Combs aka "P Diddy"
Matt Damon
James Dean
Ellen DeGeneres
Michael Dell
Charles Dickens
Walt Disney
Bob Dylan
Clint Eastwood
Larry Ellison
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Lady Gaga
Bill Gates
Richard Gere
Gene Hackman
Tom Hanks
Anne Hathaway
William Randolph Hearst
Jimi Hendrix
Adolph Hitler
Dustin Hoffman
Howard Hughes
Steve Jobs
Alex Jones
Michael Keaton
Alicia Keys
John Lennon
Abraham Lincoln (he dropped out at age 12)
Ralph Lauren
Bela Lugosi
Steve Martin
John Mayer
Bill Murray
Yoko Ono
Al Pacino
Danica Patrick
Brad Pitt
Wolfgang Puck
Burt Reynolds
Karl Rove
J. D. Salinger
Frank Sinatra
Steven Spielberg
John Travolta
Ted Turner
Oliver Stone
Kanye West
Bruce Willis
Oprah Winfrey
Steve Wozniak
Mark Zuckerberg

Related pages: Visions of Beauty, Best Marilyn Monroe Pictures, Marilyn Monroe Rare & Unusual Pictures, Famous Beauties, Famous Historical Beauties, Famous Courtesans, Famous Ingénues, Famous Hustlers, Famous Pool Sharks, Famous Rogues, Famous Heretics, Famous Hypocrites, Famous Forgers and Frauds, Famous Flops and Flubs, Famous Morons, The Dumbest Things Ever Said, Famous Last Words, Famous Insults, Famous Falsettos, Unmentionables, Visible Panty Lines

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