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Jack Black. The name sounds mischievous, a code name for fun and wild times. The impish grin and almost maniacal eyes only enhance that impression, but would you believe that this comic madman’s parents were rocket scientists?

 

He was born in Hermosa Beach, California on August 28, 1969. His father, Thomas, was a satellite engineer, and his mother, Judith, worked on the Hubble space telescope. He remembers his parents fighting constantly, and eventually divorcing when he was 10. The breakup was traumatic for the boy who went to live with his father, and remembers being hungry for attention, one motive for his desire to act. “I knew that if my friends saw me on TV, it would be the answer to all my prayers,” he told Newsweek. As luck would have it, Black managed to get a role in an Atari TV commercial when he was only 13. “I was awesome,” he said, “for three days. Then it wore off. But it gave me the hunger.”

 

After attending the Poseidon School, a private facility geared to students who were struggling in a traditional educational environment, he went to the Crossroads School where he demonstrated his talents in the drama department. Impatient with academics and eager to get started on a career in showbiz, he dropped out of UCLA and never looked back.

 

He got into the movies thanks to Tim Robbins.

    

“I was a groupie of Tim’s acting troupe in L.A.,” he said. “I didn’t sleep with any of them, but I hung out until one day I got a small part in one of their plays. Then when Tim made his first big film, he gave me a break.” That break was a small role in Robbins’ 1992 political satire, Bob Roberts.

    

The door was opened, and Black slipped in to take on a slew of TV roles. In addition to appearances on such popular series as The X-Files, Northern Exposure, and Picket Fences, he got a pilot of his own, Heat Vision and Jack, directed by Ben Stiller with Ron Silver as co-star. It didn’t sell, but Black found his way back into movies with small roles in Mars Attacks, The Fan, The Cable Guy, Waterworld, Demolition Man, and two more Tim Robbins’ directed films, Dead Man Walking and Cradle Will Rock.

 

It was his role as Barry, an opinionated blowhard and wild man employed in John Cusack’s record store in 2000's High Fidelity, that really brought him to the public’s attention and earned him best supporting actor nominations from the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Online Film Critics, and the MTV Movie Awards.

 

The role was perfect for Black who experienced an epiphany of sorts when visiting a record store in his youth.

    

“I was listening to Journey and Styx,” he reminisced in an interview with Jeffrey Anderson. “One day I went to the record store and the guy told me not to buy the new Journey album. Instead he handed me a copy of Blizzard of Oz by Ozzy Osbourne.”

 

It was then that Black became a confirmed rock ‘n’ roller. In 1994, he formed Tenacious D with fellow vocalist and guitarist Kyle Gass, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the comedy rock duo began to attract a following when they launched a TV series on HBO and performed gigs as an opening act for various rock bands.  

 

“We are sincere, kind of,” he said of Tenacious D. “But, you know, I actually tried to rock sincerely in high school in a band and was a miserable failure.. It wasn’t until Kyle and me figured out the key was to not take it seriously,” he told IGN, “while embracing the rock, also kind of making fun of it.”

 

The band’s first album, released on Epic in 2001, reached number 33 on Billboard and went platinum. Tenacious D has continued through Black’s big-screen success and has benefitted from his increasingly high profile in movies.

 

Shallow Hal, the 2001 comedy by the Farrelly Brothers, represented his next step up on Hollywood’s ladder. Co-starring with Gwyneth Paltrow, Black joked that “I was a little afraid that she would fall head-over-heels in love with me, like she did with Brad Pitt in Se7en.”

 

The movie, though a hit, wasn’t exactly a contender for awards. Here you had Paltrow in a 25-pound fat suit being wooed by Black, an insensitive boor with an interest only in a woman’s physical attributes, transformed into a kind-hearted soul capable of appreciating inner beauty through the intervention of life coach Tony Robbins (appearing as himself).

 

The normally tasteless Farrellys wanted to ensure that the comedy had a message, and by most accounts they succeeded. “Shallow Hal is often very funny,” Roger Ebert wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, “but it is also surprisingly moving at times.” Black himself sounded almost apologetic, however, saying “I wasn’t proud of it, and I got paid a lot of money ($2 million, in fact), so in retrospect it feels like a sellout.” It also won him a Teen Choice Award nomination as best actor in a comedy.

 

He provided his voice for the animated Ice Age the next year, but it was 2003's School of Rock that kicked his career to another level.

 

“I’ve never done a movie that someone wrote for me before,” he said, but writer Mike White had no one else in mind for the role of Dewey Finn, who masquerades as a substitute teacher and grooms a class of fifth graders to become rock ‘n’ rollers after he’s kicked out of his band.

 

“Dewey is basically me five years ago,” Black said, “when I was desperate, frustrated and had no career. But the difference is that I make fun of music and he never would.” He did see “more desperation in Dewey’s situation, although I had that, too, when I was younger I was really super desperate to get some rock in my world.”

 

The movie proved to be a perfect meeting of Black’s biggest passions: comedy and rock ‘n roll.

 

“I had a lot of opinions about what the music would be in the movie,” he told ING. With an alternate career in music with Tenacious D, Black was careful about what he sang because a wrong choice “could be a huge disaster on many fronts.”

 

Black even managed to win over Led Zeppelin, the ‘70s rockers notorious for turning down all requests to license their music.   

 

“They weren’t going to let us use it,” he said of Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.” The solution, proposed by director Richard Linklater, was for Black to ask the band for permission at the end of a concert scene staged with a thousand extras.

 

“I used the audience as my back-up,” he said, “I had them to chant with me, just basically groveling to Zeppelin, the gods of rock, to let us use their song or else our movie was going to explode into pieces. And they did it. It worked! They let us pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

 

Although much of the film might have seemed improvised, Black insists that School of Rock was “all scripted. And it may seem like I’m doing a lot of improv, but that’s just ‘cause Mike wrote it in my voice, so it was really easy.”

 

Although it appealed to a wide audience, Black considered School of Rock a “kid’s movie,” but without the insipidness that frequently characterizes such films. “I just wanted to go into it full guns a’ blazin,’ with my heavy artillery, and not be soft, you know?”  He succeeded. “Hail! Hail! Jack Black,” raved Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, who called him “the clown king of rock and roll.”

 

With success, he told NPR in 2010, “I definitely shed the insecurities that go with being an anonymous face in the crowd, one of the little peeps, one of the little small potatoes in a big man’s world.”

 

He entered the “big man’s world” for sure when Peter Jackson cast him as Carl Denham, the obsessed film director, in the 2005 remake of King Kong.

 

“They had told me they were looking for kind of a young Orson Welles kind of film maker, who is really cocky, filled with a sort of youthful exuberance and a little bit of hubris,” he told MovieWeb. “He’s like the unsuccessful version of Orson Welles, so he’s got this chip on his shoulder but also this hunger to be hailed as a genius.”

    

Although there were comic aspects to the role, Black saw that playing Denham was “uncharted stuff for me and I approached it the same way I approach all my roles. I take them all seriously, funny or not.”

 

Black counts the filming in New Zealand as one of his favorite experiences.“ It was a film to remember for me.”

 

It was also a film to remember for most of those who saw it, though not always for the same reasons. Time’s Richard Corliss thought it “wretchedly excessive,” and J. Hoberman in The Village Voice dismissed it as “acutely self-conscious without being particularly self-reflective.” But Roger Ebert called it “one of the great modern epics,” and Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly praised it as “a spectacle, a love story, an essay on the very nature of creation.”

    

Stuffed with amazing special-effects, the three-hour and seven minute extravaganza was a triumph for the director more than the cast, but it provided Black with an opportunity to display his comic gifts while also showing off the dramatic skill that audiences might not have expected from the star of Shallow Hal and School of Rock

 

It was back to comedy with 2006’s Nacho Libre in which Black played a monk who wants to make it as a Mexican wrestler. “The whole endeavor rests on the flabby shoulders of Black who spends almost the entire film jiggling his shirtless frame across the widest of screens,” opined The Village Voice, while Rolling Stone, though finding Black’s effort to milk laughs from the premise “a losing battle,” nonetheless observed that “you have to admire an actor who is willing to use everything from indecent exposure to an outrageous Mexican accent to get a laugh.”

 

As a man who describes himself as “hungry for rock, 24/7,” he was an appropriate choice to speak about Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, the surviving members of The Who, when the British band known for its rebellious anthems (“My Generation,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again”) were honored for their life achievement at the Kennedy Center in 2008. “Thank you,” he said, “for blowing our minds and touching our hearts.”

 

That year, he also appeared in two very successful films, Kung Fu Panda and Tropic Thunder. The former, a computer animated comedy from the DreamWorks studio, featured Black as a panda with dreams of becoming a kung fu master. Audiences loved the film, and so did most of the critics, with The New York Times describing it as “high concept with a heart.” In the latter film, a satire of Hollywood excess with Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr, as actors shooting a war film that turns surprisingly real, Black was Jeff “Fats” Portnoy, a role said to have been based on the late Chris Farley.  To Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, the Stiller-directed comedy was “an imperfect work of genius,” but “almost appalling in its tastelessness.” Asked if he was ready to do a straight action movie after Tropic Thunder, Black said, “I don’t think anyone would buy it. It has to be funny.”

 

Gulliver’s Travels, a comic retelling of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 classic about a traveler who lands on an island inhabited by no one taller than six inches, was supposed to be funny. Taking some liberties with the source material, Black’s Gulliver is a travel writer who, as he told NPR, “goes to the Bermuda Triangle to write a piece on it. Unfortunately, he gets sucked into an inter-dimensional wormhole. Everyone knows that’s what’s at the center.”

 

Black’s Gulliver was also rather shy and nervous, qualities one does not associate with the star, but which he cites as an example of how the role was tailored for him. “Even though I seem like a big, bombastic, outgoing dude, when it comes down to it with the ladies,” he told Rob Carnevale, “I was always very shy. It was difficult to form sentences with the girl of my dreams.”

    

When it came to Gulliver’s other traits, Black relied on the special-effects department to turn him into the giant of Swift’s fantasy. “It is weird to be, like, flailing around or talking to someone else in front of a blue screen when there’s no one there,” he told NPR. “It’s one of those times when you look at yourself and you go, I have a very strange job.” The role did make him more sympathetic to King Kong, however. “I do have some newfound respect for the King,” he told Christopher Toh. “Yeah, poor King Kong. It doesn’t work when you’re 100 feet taller than your loved ones.”

    

Unfortunately, this new Gulliver’s Travels resembled those six-inch tall Lilliputians more than a giant when it opened to poor box-office and disastrous reviews on Christmas Day 2010. The Wall Street Journal thought it “monumentally dreadful,” and most critics were disappointed with the special-effects. Black’s performance did not emerge unscathed either, with The New York Daily News calling him “lazy and familiar.” He was honored, in a sense, for his performance when he was awarded a Razzie as the year’s worst actor.

 

As expected, Kung Fu Panda 2 was a success the following summer, and even surpassed the original film at the box-office.

 

Next up is The Big Year, due in theaters in October 2011, with Black joining Steve Martin and Owen Wilson as competing bird-watchers. In March comes Bernie directed by School of Rock’s Richard Linklater with Black as a mortician. Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughe are his co-stars. Then he joins Nicolas Cage and Steve Carell for Charlie Kaufman’s Frank or Francis, which Variety describes as “a satire set to music.”

   

Some critics have suggested that no matter the role, be it the slackers of his most notable comedies, or the obsessed director of King Kong, Jack Black is always Jack Black with the only real difference being the name of the character. Insisting that he isn’t bothered by that charge, he says, “Everyone is who they are. You can put on different masks and accents, but at the core you’re still who you are and you bring your life experiences to every role.”

 

And Jack Black is happy to be Jack Black.

    

“Oh gosh, what’s bad about being me? Not much.” 

by Brian W. Fairbanks



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