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Mark Ruffalo's tragic past

From his role as Inspector David Toschi in Zodiac to the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers, Mark Ruffalo has made an acting career for himself filled with success and recognition. He's earned plenty of awards and nominations as an actor, including an Emmy for The Noble Heart and the BAFTA Humanitarian Award in 2014. Outside of his acting career, Ruffalo has spoken out on humanitarian, environmental, and mental health issues. 

While Mark Ruffalo has been recognized for his professional and altruism, he's had a harder time getting to a position of being able to give back on a public scale than most people might assume. "For a long time, I felt like someone had it in for me," Ruffalo told Parade. "With every new adversity, I protested — almost to God — 'How much more of this do I have to take?'" 

Though Ruffalo has persevered, allegations of terrorism, health complications, mental health concerns, and the loss of those close to him have made a lasting impact on this beloved actor. Here's a look back at Mark Ruffalo's tragic real-life story.

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Working class roots wither away

In an interview with Men's Journal, Mark Ruffalo described his childhood and experiences as a young man. He grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, alongside his brother and two sisters. His father, Frank, owned a construction painting business that he inherited from his father while his mother, Maria, worked as a hairstylist.

After a while, Frank Ruffalo's painting business went under, prompting the family to move to Virginia Beach, Virginia when Mark was 13. There, Frank started a new business called Soda Butler, a business reminiscent of the modern Soda Stream. The Ruffalo family lived here for a number of years before Soda Butler also went out of business.

Down on their luck again, the whole Ruffalo family moved out west to San Diego, where Frank thought he could find work. Unfortunately, Frank was only able to find temporary work, and the family's financial situation spiraled into bankruptcy. At the time, Mark had just graduated from high school; in several interviews, he's recalled that the family was living in a neighborhood where drugs like meth were commonly sold.

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Diagnosed too late

When talking about his childhood struggles, the Ruffalo family's financial situation isn't the only thing that made life harder for young Mark. Grade school was always difficult for him — in an interview with Parade, Ruffalo said, "I was miserable. This sounds sappy, but I was always aware of the frailty of human beings, the sorrow in the nature of things. I didn't know how to live in the world, how to cope. I felt like I didn't belong."

Later in life, Ruffalo discovered that some contributing factors to his childhood alienation may have been undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia. In May of 2017, he teamed up with the Child Mind Institute to participate in their #MyYoungerSelf initiative, through which celebrities talked about what they would have told their younger selves as they lived with a mental health or learning disorder.

In light of his experiences, Ruffalo and his family would later move from their upstate New York home back to New York City so his children could go to a school with a good program for dyslexic students. Ruffalo explained the decision in an interview with Men's Journal, saying he didn't want his children to go through the same struggles he experienced.

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Dark times

Mark Ruffalo has dealt with depression since he was a child. In school, he didn't quite fit in and often felt like the odd one out, causing emotional stress.

In an interview with New York Magazine, Ruffalo detailed his struggles after graduating highs chool. While he was still in school, friends would talk about their future goals and parents would ask Mark about his plans following graduation. Though Ruffalo wanted to be an actor, he was embarrassed and lied. He's said he spent most of his time smoking, surfing, and wandering around aimlessly instead, a period when he was "just about ready to jump off a bridge."

During an interview with the Observer, Ruffalo commented on his depression, "It's Dysthymia. It's a long-running, low-grade depression all the time," he said. "I've been struggling with that my whole life. It's like a low-grade depression that just is running all the time in the background."

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Losing a close friend

While Mark Ruffalo was living in Los Angeles and taking classes at the Stella Adler Conservatory, he had a best friend named Michael. Friends usually form based on common beliefs, interests, or experiences, and Mark and Michael were no different. In an interview with Parade, Ruffalo described how he and his friend remained close, saying, "He was the only one I knew as sad as me who I could talk to."

In 1994, Mark's best friend committed suicide. Understandably, his death affected Mark deeply. "When he died, it rocked me out of a dark depression," he recalled. "The moment he left, I realized that death wasn't an escape, that suicide wasn't an answer." The actor said that Michael's death helped him to realize the value of his own life, keeping him from making the same decision. To Ruffalo, acting became a way of coping and moving forward past the pain of his younger years.

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A health crisis

After having a dream that he had developed a brain tumor, Ruffalo became concerned and decided to consult a doctor. After a CAT scan, he received a diagnosis of Acoustic Neroma, a form of brain cancer. Because his wife was expecting their first child at the time of his diagnosis, he initially kept the news to himself, but several weeks after the birth of his son Keen, he underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Although the operation was a success, the side effects resulted in Ruffalo losing hearing in his left ear, and one side of his face became completely paralyzed.

The unfortunate diagnosis didn't only correspond with the birth of his son — Ruffalo was also reaching new heights in his career. During the time of his diagnosis, he was working on the 2001 film The Last Castle, starring Robert Redford and James Gandolfini. Just as Ruffalo's career was starting to pick up with A-list roles, he was forced to withdraw from acting due to some scary health issues and their lingering aftereffects.

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The long road to recovery

Even after the tumor was removed, the resulting paralysis of the left side of Mark Ruffalo's face caused complications for the actor. Ruffalo retreated to his home where he stayed in self-imposed exile, refusing colleagues and friends alike.  

Ruffalo had a difficult time accepting the fact that he was unable to work. As he told New York Magazine, he contacted director M. Night Shyamalan in an attempt to keep his acting gig in the then-upcoming film Signs. "I was scheming things for my character," he admitted. "Like, 'Okay, he had a motorcycle accident and he's paralyzed on the left side of his face.'" Shyamalan agreed to consider the idea, but sadly, the pitch fell through when Ruffalo's doctors asserted he was in no condition to be acting. He'd been in the hospital a week earlier, and he was told his immune system wasn't robust enough for him to work again.

When speaking with the Telegraph, Ruffalo said that after six months of paralysis, the chances of regaining motor control over his whole face would be remote. However, he beat the odds — after six months of paralysis, Ruffalo was able to make very slight movements, signaling the beginning of a recovery that would still take several more months.

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A painful process

Coping with the paralysis proved difficult enough, but the road to recovery posed new challenges. According to Ruffalo, he gained 40 pounds following his operation. Additionally, the prescribed drugs resulted in a loss of balance. While the actor described this side effect as somewhat comical, he also explained that it limited his ability to help take care of his children. In one instance, he even dropped his son. He was also confused and had difficulty understanding concepts such as tying a knot.

In an interview with the Acoustic Neuroma Association regarding his experiences before and after his operation, Ruffalo said he focused on trying to move the muscles in his face for about an hour every day. He also would walk for miles each day. These two things helped to speed up his recovery and regain his balance.

Additionally, in the same interview, Ruffalo explained that he underwent various therapies to help alleviate the paralysis, including acupuncture, herbal therapy, massage, and other forms of alternative medicines in conjunction with his prescribed regimen. 

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The rumor mill

As a result of Ruffalo's paralysis, the actor remained outside the public eye for about a year to focus on his recovery. Though he wanted to return to acting, his doctors strongly advised him against it. During his diagnosis and recovery, with the exception of his close friends and family, Ruffalo kept details about his condition a secret. "I didn't want any visitors," he later recalled. "I was so unbelievably miserable, and what was worse was people's reactions to seeing me. It was shattering to them."

As a result, it appeared to fans as if Ruffalo simply disappeared into thin air. During his break from acting, some speculated about the reasons for his sudden disappearance. "There were all kinds of rumors about what had happened to me," he said. "Drugs, alcoholism, AIDS…"

Eventually, word got out about Ruffalo's cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery, putting those rumors to rest.

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A death in the family

Unfortunately, Ruffalo's best friend isn't the only person close to him who passed away unexpectedly. According to the Los Angeles Times, on Dec. 8, 2008, Mark's brother Scott Ruffalo died a week after he was shot in the head in his own home.

Initially it appeared that Scott might have died due to a Russian roulette mishap, but eventually the case was ruled a homicide. Police questioned Shaha Mishaal Adham and her boyfriend Brian Scofield after they willingly came forward. According to Shaha, she visited Scott to retrieve the keys to her car; she told the police that while she was with Scott, he mentioned something about Russian roulette, and she heard a gunshot shortly after.

Police booked Shaha after hearing her story. However, she was released the following day after her lawyer managed to prove she was present but not responsible for Ruffalo's death.

On Jan. 6, 2012, Adham passed away, leaving the case without a critical witness. Scott Ruffalo's murder remains unsolved.

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A temporary retirement

Following his brother's death, Ruffalo decided to take a break from Hollywood. 

In his interview with the Telegraph, Ruffalo stated that he'd been considering stepping aside prior to Scott's death because of his growing disillusionment with Hollywood. "My brother passing away was the final thing that kicked me over," he recalled. "It reminded me that life is short and you'd better do what you want while you have a chance." Ruffalo fired his agent and publicist, left his apartment in L.A., and moved to a secluded home in upstate New York with his wife and three children.

Still, Ruffalo was unable to completely cut himself off from the Hollywood lifestyle. In fact, he made his directorial debut with Sympathy for Delicious, a film about a paralyzed DJ who enters into faith-healing. In pre-production at the time of Scott's death, the film saw release in 2010.

Though Ruffalo continued working on his film, he remained retired from acting until he read the script for The Kids Are All Right. Inspired, he signed on for the role of Paul, a man who is contacted by two children born to a lesbian couple who used his donated sperm. As he told the Telegraph, Ruffalo took the role as an homage to his brother.

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More medical woes

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ruffalo explained that meditation has helped him to cope with his anxiety. He discovered its benefits through a friend who conquered addiction in part through the adoption of a meditation program; seeing the positive changes in another person, Ruffalo was opened to the practice of meditation, which he credits with completely changing his outlook.

"It's pretty much a daily practice that quiets your brain and oddly enough, actually slows down time, so you're not so much trapped in your immediate reactions to things," he explained. "My work started to change, my luck started to change. The way the world looked to me changed."

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Fighting for a cause

In 2010, Ruffalo helped to promote the film Gasland, a documentary exploring the negative effects of fracking. His efforts on behalf of the film caught the attention of the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security, which resulted in reports saying the actor had earned a spot on the U.S. Terrorist Advisory List.

Unperturbed, Ruffalo told GQ (via Fox News) that he found the rumor funny, but that didn't stop different outlets from running stories about his supposed terrorist ties. 

In fact, according to Ruffalo, some outlets picked up the story and paired it with news of Scott Ruffalo's unsolved murder to create a more compelling story. "Every news organization in the country ran it without bothering to check if it was true," he said. "It wasn't until the Washington Times finally nailed the story that it went away." James Powers, the Director of Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security, resigned after controversy surrounding the unlawful monitoring of activist groups began to surface.