Sean Penn Biography

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Sean Penn Biography

Actor, writer, director, producer. Born August 17, 1960, in Burbank, California. Penn grew up in Los Angeles and attended Santa Monica High School, along with fellow students and future actors Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, and Rob Lowe. An early interest in filmmaking, specifically directing, led to a passion for acting, and Penn moved to New York City when he was 19 to pursue a career as an actor. He soon landed a part in a Broadway play, Heartland. In 1981, he made his film debut, in the military school drama Taps, alongside star Timothy Hutton (already an Oscar-winner for 1980’s Ordinary People) and fellow up-and-comer Tom Cruise.
Penn’s breakthrough role came a year later, when he played perpetually stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli in the high school comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He garnered acclaim for his first starring role, in 1983’s Bad Boys and for The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), also starring Hutton. In 1985, Penn gained a whole new measure of fame when he married pop goddess Madonna. Their tumultuous four year marriage produced one dismal movie, 1986’s Shanghai Surprise, and a barrage of tabloid headlines. Penn’s “bad boy” image only increased with his continued hostility towards the aggressive paparazzi—he served 34 days in prison in 1987 for punching an extra who had tried to take his picture on the set of the film Colors, co-starring Robert Duvall and directed by Dennis Hopper. Penn and Madonna divorced in 1989.

In 1991, two years after earning rave reviews for his performance in Casualties of War (1989), directed by Brian De Palma and co-starring Michael J. Fox, Penn directed his first film, the little seen feature The Indian Runner. Though he had claimed he was quitting acting, Penn was back in front of the camera in 1993, playing a coke-addled criminal lawyer in De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, co-starring Al Pacino. In 1995, he starred as a death row inmate searching for salvation in the critical and popular success Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins and co-starring Susan Sarandon. Penn’s powerful performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor. That same year, he wrote, produced, and directed The Crossing Guard, a dark drama starring his boyhood idol, Jack Nicholson.

Penn’s edgy good looks and undeniable talent might have secured him a place among Hollywood’s A-list leading men; instead, he has largely neglected headline roles in big-budget films in favor of decidedly unheroic roles in darker, more understated films, with varying degrees of success. He starred as a lovesick, jealous husband in Nick Cassavetes's She’s So Lovely (1997), co-starring John Travolta and Penn’s real-life (second) wife, Robin Wright Penn (whom he fell in love with while filming State of Grace in 1990 and married in 1996 after a turbulent five-year romance). Although Penn (who also served as executive producer) won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival, She's So Lovely did not attract a wide audience. Penn appeared in two other major films in 1997: the poorly received U-Turn, directed by Oliver Stone and co-starring Nick Nolte and Jennifer Lopez, and the hit action-thriller The Game, starring Michael Douglas. In Hurlyburly (1998), Penn reprised a role he had played on the Los Angeles stage in 1988, co-starring with Kevin Spacey as a brutal, misogynistic Hollywood agent. In 1998, Penn also starred in the critically acclaimed World War II drama, The Thin Red Line, directed by Terrence Malick.

In 1999, the unpredictable Penn took Hollywood by surprise when he garnered a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, turning in another searing, darkly complex performance as the dissolute jazz guitarist at the center of Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, alongside fellow Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton. In 2000, he starred in the romantic Up in the Villa, with Kristen Scott Thomas, and The Weight of Water. His third directorial feature, the thriller The Pledge, starred Nicholson and Robin Wright Penn.

Penn and Robin Wright Penn live in Marin County, California, with their daughter, Dylan, and son, Hopper. Wright Penn, best known for her roles in The Princess Bride (1987), Forrest Gump (1993), and Message in a Bottle (1999), also appeared in Hurlyburly and The Crossing Guard. Penn’s mother, Eileen Ryan, is an actress who appeared in Magnolia, released in late 1999. His father, Leo Penn, who died in 1998, was an actor-turned-director who was blacklisted during the 1940s and 1950s when he refused to name names of Communist sympathizers in Hollywood. Penn has two brothers: Christopher, an actor who appeared with his brother in At Close Range (1986), and Michael, a rock musician.

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