Personal detailsName: Sean Penn
Born: 17 August 1960 (Age: 53)
Where: Burbank, California, USA
Height: 5' 10"
Awards: Won 2 Oscars and 1 Golden Globe, 3 BAFTA nominations
All about this star
Seldom has cinema seen a more controversial figure than Sean Penn. Breaking through as a Brat-Packer at the beginning of the Eighties, he looked set for a mighty mainstream career but, having married Madonna in the first burst of her phenomenal success, instead spent much of the decade flailing at the paparazzi, desperately battling for privacy at the eye of a media storm, even getting himself jailed. Quitting acting altogether, he reinvented himself as an art-house director and, returning to the peripheries of the Hollywood fold, as a consummate character actor, being nominated three times for Oscars, then winning Best Actor for both Mystic River and Milk. Yet the fire of rebellion still burned as, publicly rubbishing most of Tinseltown's output, as well as America's foreign policies, he was constantly on the edge of a mighty furore.
His refusenik roots were deep. His father, Leo Penn, was an actor, writer and director during the McCarthy era. Called before the Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to name names, was branded a Communist and blacklisted - forcing him to move into TV. One of Sean's earlier memories is of his father taking him to the set of The Last Tycoon - starring Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson - near to the family home. Passing through, Leo was hailed by the movie's director, Elia Kazan, who HAD named names. But Leo, normally warm and friendly, walked straight past, his passionate integrity leaving an indelible mark on his son.
As far as Sean's later career went, Leo was not the only one to draw him towards movies. For Sean's mother was Eileen Ryan, a well-known TV actress who appeared in most of the big shows - Bonanza, Marcus Welby MD etc. She'd take a near-two-decade gap to raise her three children - Sean, younger brother Chris (also a fine actor), and Michael (now a musician, he soundtracked Boogie Nights and is married to Aimee Mann). Then she returned in the likes of ER, Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue and CSI, as well as Parenthood, Magnolia, and many of Sean's projects.
The family spent Sean's first ten years (he was born in Burbank on the 17th of August, 1960) in different parts of California's San Fernando Valley, from North Hollywood to Woodland Hills. Then they moved to Malibu, where Sean attended Santa Monica High School and became a surf nut - as it happens, perfect research for the role that would first make him a star. Living near Martin Sheen, Sean's friends and schoolmates included Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, as well as Rob Lowe, and the gang ran wild together, occasionally pausing to shoot shorts on Super 8.
Though he had thought of becoming an attorney, Sean's interest in film-making grew too strong to resist. It's often been said that his path to fame was easy, because of his parents, his friends and, eventually, his first marriage. But Sean started work early, skipping college to spend two years with the Los Angeles Repertory Company. Here he worked backstage, cleaning, carrying and gradually learning to act, working as assistant to actor/director Pat Hingle. He directed a one-act play called Terrible Jim Fitch, played in local theatre, and studied under the legendary acting coach Peggy Feury.
Of course, being Leo Penn's son did help. Leo was a major TV director throughout the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, helming episodes of Star Trek and Lost In Space, Dr Kildare and Cannon, Columbo, Starsky And Hutch and on to Fame, Cagney And Lacey, Magnum PI and St Elsewhere. Sean had made his screen debut back in 1974, alongside his mother in The Little House Of The Prairie. Now, in 1979, he made his pro debut in a dad-directed episode of Barnaby Jones. As you'd expect, it was quite a controversial episode where counsellors were found to be dealing dope and killing people in a rehab school for young addicts. It was also packed with future stars, Ed Harris playing the bad counsellor, and Madeleine Stowe featuring, too. Leo was also in charge of Sean's TV movie debut, Hellinger's Law, an unsuccessful pilot starring Telly Savalas.
But it was as part of the much-vaunted Brat Pack that Sean really first broke through. First came another TV movie, where he played the title role in The Killing Of Randy Webster, as a kid who's shot by Houston police and whose dad will not accept the official version of events. Also in the cast were Jennifer Jason Leigh and Anthony Edwards, later to hit big with ER. Then came Harold Becker's Taps, where Timothy Hutton played a military cadet who leads a mutiny to stop his 141-year-old academy being taken over by developers. Alongside Tom Cruise, Sean was superb as his feisty brother-in-arms, and a Hollywood buzz began that he was the Next Big Thing.
It should be noted here that Sean did not get the Taps role through the influence of his parents. In fact, having grown dissatisfied with TV, he'd bought a one-way ticket to New York to gain stage experience. Back home he'd appeared in Earthworms, in New York he went for a part in Heartland. His first reading was terrible, but his second won him the role, and the role won him both rave reviews and the part in Taps. Sean would occasionally return to the theatre in later years, in The Slab Boys in 1983, in Hurlyburly in 1988 (ten years later he'd get the movie made) and, in 2000, he played alongside Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte and Cheech Marin in The Late Henry Moss, written by Sam Shepard, one of Sean's heroes.
After Taps came Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the first big one for both Sean and writer Cameron Crowe.