By 16, Jackie Earle Haley had it all: movie stardom as the hero of the 1976 smash The Bad News Bears and the perks that come with being a teen idol. "All the girls would flock to Jackie," recalls actor Daniel Stern, who costarred with Haley in 1979's Breaking Away. Then he grew up, and it was over. In his 30s, Haley was delivering pizza and driving limos to pay his rent. "When you are young, your identity is connected to your celebrity," says the actor, 45. "When it starts to decline, your self-worth goes with it."

Eight years ago Haley—a Southern California native who landed his first acting gig at age 5—quit Hollywood for San Antonio, where he started producing and directing corporate videos and commercials. "It was time to move on," says Haley, who shares a three-bedroom Texas ranch house with wife Amelia, 46, and son Chris, 20. "I put the acting on a shelf." But in 2004, Haley got a call from director Steven Zaillian, who remembered Haley from his '70s movies and cast him as Sean Penn's bodyguard in All the King's Men. "It was like the sky opened up," says Haley. "And Steve Zaillian reached down and said, 'Hey man, you want another shot?'"

That break led to the part of a tormented sex offender in Little Children. "Jackie captured the scariness of the character," says co-screenwriter Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book the movie is based on. "But you feel his anguish." Pal Kate Winslet, who knew Haley from Men, put in a word on his behalf. But, says director Todd Field, "Jackie cast himself."

The performance won critics' raves—and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. "When my wife told me, we just held each other and cried," says Haley. Still, he's keeping his day job. "I've had a little experience in disappointment," says Haley. But, he adds, "I'm going to walk out of that Kodak Theatre a winner—no matter what happens."