Character actor Chris Penn worked tirelessly to escape out from under the shadows of his older brothers, actor Sean Penn and musician Michael Penn, by carving a respectable onscreen résumé playing angry, deeply wounded men in films like "Reservoir Dogs" (1991), and "The Funeral" (1996). Like his brother Sean, Chris Penn started acting at a young age, offering solid support as impulsive young men in "Footloose" (1984), "Pale Rider" (1985) and in his brother's "At Close Range" (1986). "Reservoir Dogs" gave him entry into major features as a character player with enormous potential, as evidenced by his dramatic turn in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993). His career appeared to plateau in the late 1990s, though he continued to work steadily until his death in 2006 from health issues. His untimely departure robbed the entertainment industry of a talented player who had yet to find the proper vehicle for his abilities.
Born Christopher Shannon Penn in Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 1965, he was the son of Leo Penn, a stage veteran and later, a prolific director for television, and his mother, Eileen Ryan, a supporting player whose career reached back to the days of live television in the 1950s. Raised in L.A., he and his older brother Sean studied acting as adolescents under Peggy Feury at her Loft Theater. Penn attended Santa Monica High School for two years, where his classmates included fellow future stars like Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez, before dropping out to pursue acting. His screen debut came with a minor role in the obscure 1979 family film "Charlie and the Talking Buzzard." Supporting roles in Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish" (1983) as one of Matt Dillon's hoodlum pals, and in "All the Right Moves" (1983) as a football teammate of Tom Cruise soon followed. During this period, Penn was also devoted to kickboxing, a sport he would pursue until the 1990s.
Penn's breakthrough came in 1984 with the lightweight but massively popular dance film "Footloose," which cast him as an earnest but square Midwestern boy who learned to dance via Kevin Bacon's streetwise city kid. The film's widespread appeal to young audiences helped to boost Penn's profile, and within a year's time, he had earned his first starring role in "The Wild Life" (1984). Penned by Cameron Crowe, whose script for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1981) had helped to make his older brother a star, the film was expected to do the same for Chris, who played a former high school wrestler gone to seed in the Los Angeles suburbs. However, the film was not a success, and Penn was soon back to supporting roles. At first, the roles were solid; he was the bullying son of land baron Richard Dysart, whose iron-fisted rule of a Western mining town was challenged by Clint Eastwood's mysterious preacher in "Pale Rider" (1985), and joined his brother and mother for the dark thriller "At Close Range" (1986). In the latter film, the Penn siblings played brothers who follow their father (Christopher Walken) into the business of organized crime, only to turn against him when he put contracts out on their lives. Penn played the younger of the two brothers, who was murdered by his father in his attempt to wipe them out.
Living in such formidable shadows, Penn struggled to find his footing as an actor at the tail end of the 1980s, just as his other brother Michael Penn was now making a name for himself on the Billboardcharts with his Top Ten hit single, "No Myth." The younger Penn struggled, battling his ballooning weight and a five-year drug problem brought on by the unexpected death of his daughter, who expired due to complications from her premature birth. Roles were sporadic and varied from guest spots on TV to low-budget efforts like "Return from the River Kwai" (1986) and "Best of the Best" (1989), a martial arts action film that allowed him to display his black belt-level abilities, as well as an aptitude for characters with exceptionally short fuses.
In 1991, Penn's career received a much-needed jolt with his performance in Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut, "Reservoir Dogs." As Nice Guy Eddie Cabot, the track suit-clad son of mobster Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), Penn gave a full-blooded but nuanced performance, erupting into volcanic fits of temper that barely obscured a frightened little boy angered by men pointed guns at his beloved dad. The picture's critical success minted Penn as a character actor with tremendous energy and range. Many of his post-"Reservoir Dogs" roles capitalized on his ability to summon tremendous bursts of intensity, like his hot-tempered detective, Nicky Dimes, in the Tarantino-penned "True Romance" (1993) or his homophobic sheriff in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" (1995).
More complex was his hot-wired pool cleaner in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993), who struggled to control his jealousy over his wife's job as a phone sex operator, or the personable but obsessive Chez, whose desire for vengeance after the murder of his brother threatened to destroy his marriage in "The Funeral" (1996). In both films, Penn tapped into the deep wellspring of grief that fueled his characters' anger, and critics responded with a wealth of praise. Penn even captured two Volpi Cups from the Cannes Film Festival - one as part of an ensemble cast for "Short Cuts," and the second for Best Supporting Actor in "The Funeral." Again, it seemed as if Penn was destined for respect, if not the stardom enjoyed by his brother.
But the next level - the A-list that should have been afforded to Penn after such notable work - never materialized. He soon settled back into a steady stream of indifferent work in pictures like "Deceiver" (1997) or "Corky Romano" (2001), playing a broad palette of lawbreakers and trigger-happy types. Though his work was never less than solid, the roles, and often the pictures themselves, were beneath him. There were a few substantial hits along the way, like "Rush Hour" (1998), which cast him as a shady arms dealer. He also enjoyed the perks of notoriety afforded by his tough guy roles, by taking a voiceover part in the hit video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" (2004) and a bit as a dancing bartender in the music video for Jay-Z's single "Can I Get A." (1998) from the "Rush Hour" soundtrack.
The new millennium saw Penn keeping a full schedule with features and television; there was even an attempt at a weekly series with "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" (CBS, 2003), a gentle dramedy from David E. Kelley about a trio of former hockey-playing siblings who faced the joys and trials of life in small town New England, but the show lasted only five episodes. He was soon back to supporting turns in features both big - "Starsky and Hutch" (2004) - and small - "The Darwin Awards" (2006). The latter premiered a day before Penn was discovered dead at his Santa Monica condominium on Jan. 24, 2006. A coroner's reporter cited heart disease as the primary cause of the actor's demise, though prescription drugs were also found in his bloodstream. At the time of his death, he was only 40. His family and the tight-knit group of actors who had grown up with the Penn family - including the Estevez/Sheen siblings and Lowe, among many others - all showered the grieving family with condolences over Penn's unexpected passing.
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Starting acting at age 12, mostly at The Loft Studio (date approximate)
Produced, wrote, directed, and apppeared in his own film, "Nobody's Hero", at age 13 (date approximate)
Starred with Tom Cruise and Craig T. Nelson in "All the Right Moves"
Feature acting debut in Coppola's "Rumble Fish"
Had a supporting role as Willard in "Footloose," about a city boy, played by Kevin Bacon, who comes to a small town where rock music and dancing have been banned
First starring role, "The Wild Life"
Worked with brother Sean Penn in James Foley's "At Close Range"
Played Nice Guy Eddie Cabot in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs"
Cast in the Robert Altman film "Short Cuts"; which follows 22 Los Angeles residents whose lives intersect over the course of a few days.
Co-starred with Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in "True Romance"; written by Quentin Tarantino
Cast in the film "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar"
Featured in the drama "Mulholland Falls"
Cast in the comedy "Rush Hour"
Starred in the comedy "Corky Romano"
Cast as regular Waylon Shaw on the CBS drama "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire"
Featured in the big screen adaption of the 70's cop series "Starsky & Hutch"
Appeared in the drama, "Holly" about child trafficking in Cambodia; film released after his death