Nationality: American. Born: Burbank, California, 17 August 1960; son of the actor and television director Leo Penn and the actress Eileen Ryan; brother of the actor Christopher Penn. Family: Married 1) the singer-actress Madonna, 1985 (divorced 1989); 2) the actress
The Concrete Cowboys (Burt Kennedy—for TV)
Hellinger's Law (Leo Penn—for TV); The Killing of Randy Webster (Wanamaker—for TV); Taps (Harold Becker) (as Alex Dwyer)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Heckerling) (as Jeff Spicoli)
Bad Boys (Rosenthal) (as Mick O'Brien); Summerspell (Shanklin) (as Buddy)
Crackers (Malle) (as Dillard); Racing with the Moon (Richard Benjamin) (as Henry "Hopper" Nash)
The Falcon and the Snowman (Schlesinger) (as Andrew Daulton Lee)
At Close Range (Foley) (as Bradford Whitewood Jr.); Shanghai Surprise (Goddard) (as Glendon Wasey)
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Couturie—doc) (as voice only)
Colors (Dennis Hopper) (as Danny McGavin); Judgment in Berlin (Leo Penn) (as Gunther X); Cool Blue (Mullin and Shepard) (as Phil the plumber, uncredited)
Casualties of War (De Palma) (as Sergeant Meserve); We're No Angels (Neil Jordan) (as Jimmy)
State of Grace (Joanou) (as Terry Noonan)
Schneeweissrosenrot ( SnowwhiteRosered ) (Langhans and Ritter)
Carlito's Way (De Palma) (as David Kleinfeld); The Last Party (Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin—doc) (as himself)
Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins) (as Matthew Poncelet)
U Turn (Stone) (as Bobby Cooper); She's So Lovely (Cassavetes) (as Eddie Quinn + exec pr); Loved (Dignam) (as Man on the Hill +pr); The Game (Fincher) (as Conrad); Hugo Pool (Robert Downey Sr.) (as Strange Hitchhiker)
The Thin Red Line (Malick) (as First Sgt. Edward Welsh); Hurlyburly (Drazan) (as Eddie)
Sweet and Lowdown (Allen) (as Emmett Ray); Being John Malkovich (Jonze) (as himself)
Up at the Villa (Haas) (as Rowley Flint); The Weight of Water
The Indian Runner
The Crossing Guard
". . . But Not Too Close," interview with Martha Frankel, in American Film (Los Angeles), August 1991.
Interview with Julian Schnabel and Dennis Hopper, in Interview (New York), September 1991.
"Sean Penn at Close Range," interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), September 1991.
"Sean Penn," interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview (New York), October 1995.
"Penn Is From Heaven," interview with Tom Charity, in Time Out (London), 27 March 1996.
"Cool Jerk," interview with C. Mundy, in Rolling Stone (New York), 4 April 1996.
Haller, Scot, "Who Is Sean Penn—and Why Doesn't He Want Anyone to Find Out?," in People (New York), 11 February 1985.
Wolcott, James, "Tough Act," in Vanity Fair (New York), March 1986.
Carter, Graydon, "Sean Penn Pulls No Punches," in Vogue , May 1988.
Connelly, Christopher, "Sean Penn Bites Back," in Premiere (New York), October 1991.
Current Biography 1993 , New York, 1993.
Weinraub, Bernard, "Ex-Bad Boy as Sensitive Director," in New York Times , 12 November 1995.
Rebello, S. and others, "Who's the Best Actor in Hollywood?" in Movieline (Escondido), October 1996.
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Sean Penn stood out in his first big-screen appearance as the calm eye of the melodramatic Taps , and raced on to create a notable gallery of outsiders and rebels, both violently delinquent as in Bad Boys and humorous as in Fast Times at Ridgemont High . It was as Spicoli, the stoned high-school student-cum-surfer in the latter that he revealed the nerve to play a character in a stylized manner, and it was this performance that brought him notice as well as popularity: it was clear that here was an off-beat young actor of considerable skill, something of a prodigy as both straight performer and character cartoonist. This was recognized by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association which voted him winner of the 1983 New Generation Award. His self-conscious style, however, got the better of him in his overly mannered performance as Daulton Lee in The Falcon and the Snowman , betraying all too obviously his debt to Dustin Hoffman ( Midnight Cowboy ) and Robert De Niro ( The King of Comedy ), and substituting imitation for experience. However, in his next film, At Close Range , he evidenced the maturing of his approach, giving a complex and sympathetic portrayal of an aimless, damaged youth coming to terms with his betrayal by a psychopathically criminal father (Christopher Walken).
Over the next four years, although Penn appeared in a few films—a mixed bag that included the fairly disastrous Shanghai Surprise with his then wife Madonna, and Dennis Hopper's Colors —he was more in the public eye as Madonna's consort, brawling in the glare of tabloid flashbulbs, than as an actor of stature. That changed with his towering performance in Brian De Palma's controversial Casualties of War . As Sergeant Meserve, the American soldier in Vietnam who avenges the death of a buddy by kidnapping and raping a forlorn Vietnamese girl, Penn gives a considered and uncompromising portrayal of confusion, rage and brutality, evoking an elemental man caught in a war where only individual temperament and character separate courage (as represented by Michael J. Fox) from sadism. The actor is fearsome to behold, employing his full armory—body, face, and voice—to express the full range of organized male aggression, both that which protects and that which violates. Arguably, he had become the first in his generation of actors to absorb and reveal the influence of De Niro, and, if you like, by that osmosis, Marlon Brando.
Penn subsequently claimed that he did not like acting and accepted roles only in order to pay bills unless tempted to work with certain directors on exceptional scripts. One such was De Palma's Carlito's Way with Al Pacino, in which Penn gives a masterly character performance as Kleinfeld, the corrupt, self-serving, amoral, drug-taking lawyer who sells Pacino down the river. Combining whining villainy with a rancid smack of his comic style, comedy, he makes of Kleinfeld a sleazy creature, at once caricatural and sinister, snickering at his own fibs and stunts under De Palma's super-sophisticated direction of the material. The actor, meanwhile, had become preoccupied with the idea of writing and directing his own films, beginning with The Indian Runner , straightforwardly reflecting the era of his own experience in its somewhat overheated treatment of a blue-collar misfit wreaking havoc on his family. His next, The Crossing Guard four years later, was an altogether more ambitious and opaque, but less entertaining affair, but both are steeped in lugubrious visuals, a "workshop" approach and a too-studied search for effect. Nevertheless, both were impressively committed and intense demonstrations of his talent, which made all the more pointed and lamentable the loss to movies of the performances he was not giving.
Then, as if he had worked something out of his system he returned to acting with more apparent relish and lean confidence, sliding smoothly into difficult, confused characters such as the weaselly condemned killer Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking , the errant, disturbed husband in She's So Lovely (for which he received the best actor award at the 1997 Cannes Film festival) and the heartsick Eddie in Hurlyburly. In smaller character roles—the sophisticated prankster in The Game , a tough sergeant in The Thin Red Line —his effortless presence left a dominant memory of the picture. His choice tragicomic performance for Woody Allen as Sweet and Lowdown 's Emmet Ray, a fictitious but classically self-destructive jazz musician of monstrousness and pathos, rang with understanding and truth, compelling in his recklessness but invested with vulnerable and comedic undertones which elicit sympathy and make Emmet unexpectedly endearing. By now Penn was an established actors' actor, essaying a pre-World War II comedy of manners as a rich idler in Italy in Up at the Villa , and embarking as producer, writer and director, on The Pledge with a distinguished cast headed by Jack Nicholson and including Vanessa Redgrave. But, with the maturity and focus to realize his ambitions, it seemed unlikely that an actor as inventive as Sean Penn, equally good whether serious or funny, would ever abandon what he does so well.
—Alan Dale, updated by Robyn Karney