Reading about the comeback struggle of American Beauty weirdo Wes Bentley yesterday got us thinking about other youngish, once-promising stars who made a big initial splash and then mostly disappeared. Let's give some career advice to Bentley and four others.

Five Actors Who Almost Made It and the Long Road Back

Wes Bentley
Bentley came roaring onto the scene as the skull-capped suitor to Kevin Spacey's daughter in American Beauty, Sam Mendes' 1998 popcorn take on suburban ennui. He had a piercing gaze and a wolfish brow and, sure yeah, he could act pretty well. Big leading man roles in duds like the thriller Soul Survivors and the nearly unwatchable epic The Four Feathers (alongside other up-and-comers Kate Hudson and Heath Ledger) followed soon after, but nothing connected and he faded away. The Times profile reveals that he's been dealing with drug abuse problems, so that's too bad.
The Road Back: Bentley is starring in the well-received off-Broadway play Venus in Fur at the moment, so, you know... theatre is good. But movies and TV! That's where it's really at. He's definitely not ready for some big starring film role yet, but what if he joins the cast of Nurse Jackie as some weirdo holistic doctor who confounds Jackie with his hippie-dippy bullshit but draws her in with that yards-long stare of his?

Five Actors Who Almost Made It and the Long Road Back

Alison Lohman
Lohman made her first big impression as a dreamy but troubled teen going through the foster care system in the underrated White Oleander, and did solid follow-up work in Ridley Scott's similarly underrated Matchstick Men. And then... well, not a whole hell of a lot. She popped up in kiddie flick Flicka, the drowsy dud Things We Lost in the Fire, and last year's deliberately kitschy horror b-grader Drag Me to Hell. At 30, Lohman is still young enough to play ingenue, especially given her porcelain baby face, and yet the roles haven't come. Maybe it's a personal decision, who knows, but we feel like she could be doing a lot more.
The Road Back: Lohman is such an ethereal, slightly odd presence, which makes her interesting but also a bit hard to cast. She'd be perfect in a Terrence Malick movie — all dazed lyricism and angelic blonde hair. She's also got the kind of melancholy that's perfect for the current spate of bittersweet indie romantic dramadies ((500) Days of summer, the upcoming Blue Valentine), so she'd be smart to do one of those. Paired up with... Oh, let's say the delicious all-American sandwich that is Zach Gilford.

Five Actors Who Almost Made It and the Long Road Back

Samantha Mathis
Remember her? The young star of Pump Up the Volume did some big movies in her time — Little Women, Broken Arrow, a small role in The American President — but she never quite hit the way we thought she would. In recent years she's done some stage work, lots of TV guest spots (like Olivia the Dharma teacher on Lost), but nothing to match her early-mid '90s heat. She's an appealing actress, warm and frank, and we'd like to see more of her. Even though she's like 39 or something, and thus ancient.
The Road Back: Theater is good! We like theater. But, again, movies and TV are really what everyone needs. Mathis should aim for juicy smaller parts in classy independents — she has the face, if not always the carriage, for period pieces — and some smart TV work. Maybe she could appear alongside Gretchen Mol in a few episodes of the upcoming Boardwalk Empire. Or we liked her toting a gun well enough in Broken Arrow to think she'd make a good foil for Timothy Olyphant on his new Elmore Leonard series, Justified.

Five Actors Who Almost Made It and the Long Road Back

Kip Pardue
The golden boy actor, who played football at Yale and was an Abercrombie & Fitch model, seemed destined for big things when he was cast in that Sylvester Stallone racing movie Driven and in Remember the Titans. But then despite his drive, no one remembered him (get it?). Maybe he was hyped to the point of premature saturation, like a more male but no less blonde Gretchen Mol. The guy really hasn't done anything of note since the well-received 2005 indie Loggerheads (movies called Slightly Single in LA and Stag Night do not count), but we remember him being a reasonably talented fellow in things like The Rules of Attraction, so it might be interesting to see him back on the scene.
The Road Back: He'll need a lot of work, mostly because people don't really remember who he is. So let's get him a nice meaty theater role to up his cred — Joe Pitt in the upcoming Angels in America revival, perhaps (he looks so much like Patrick Wilson!) — and then put him on an established but still-hot show, something like Damages. Or maybe he could be the pretty-boy serial killer on the next season of creatively-soaring Dexter. You know, something like that: a role that, sure, exploits his looks, but also shows off those Ivy League acting chops (he graduated with an Econ degree, but whatever).

Five Actors Who Almost Made It and the Long Road Back

Alicia Silverstone
Oh, Cher. After breaking out a bit too big in the 1995 smash Clueless, Silverstone struggled to define herself as a "real" actress. She was also beset with a less-than-emaciated figure, which pretty much nixed her chances at big-time movie stardom. She's done smaller film roles, some theater (she's currently in the twice-extended Broadway production Time Stands Still, opposite Laura Linney), and her own ill-fated comeback TV project, Miss Match. She remains a kind and appealing actress, so let's make her a star again.
The Road Back: Again, the theater is always a good start. It gets you respect, you meet interesting and dedicated actors, and there's a lot more of it to do. To get back on the screen, we think Silverstone ought to go the Mathis route of aiming for smaller parts in prestige pictures, much like she's doing right now sharing the stage with Linney. Silverstone could get hot by association, and before you know it she's starring in her own HBO comedy series about a bored and slightly frumpy fading Midwestern sorority girl who decides one lonely drunken night to move to New York and try her hand at acting school.

There are many other folks who fit the just-slightly-missed-it bill — people like Chris Evans, Barry Pepper, Marley Shelton, Radha Mitchell, Estella Warren (Pardue's costar in Driven) and Derek Luke. Who's an actor you thought was going to hit big but then mysteriously fizzled?