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"I thought he was the coolest cat in the room," Kevin Spacey said when asked why he wanted to play Bobby Darin, the late singer, in Beyond the Sea. As one of the screen’s most versatile and bravest actors, Spacey has been the coolest cat in the room on several occasions, but he’s also been a shmuck, a serial killer, the creepy clerk in a real estate office, and even the nemesis of the Man of Steel. Whatever the role, Kevin Spacey rarely fails in his goal to "convince you that I am that character on screen."

For someone who was once rejected as a contestant on TV’s notorious "The Gong Show," Spacey has come a long way. He is not only one of the few actors to have won two Academy Awards, he is one of only six male actors to have won the Oscar in both the lead and supporting categories (Jack Lemmon, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and Denzel Washington are the others). On the other hand, he is one of a seemingly endless parade of film stars to profess that "The movies are not my first priority - the theater is," but one of the few to prove it by remaining consistently active on the legitimate stage. In 2004, he proved it further by accepting an offer to become the artistic director of London’s legendary Old Vic.
Born Kevin Fowler in 1959 in South Orange, New Jersey, his early life echoes many another show-biz biography. His father, a technical writer, was often unemployed. As a result, Kevin, his mother, and his two older siblings moved frequently before settling down in Southern California. As a boy, he was an incorrigible troublemaker. After setting his sister’s treehouse on fire, he was sent to Northridge Military Academy. But whatever discipline that strict environment attempted to provide was seemingly in vain. After an altercation with a fellow student, he was asked to leave.
He had already become interested in acting by watching old movies on television, but it wasn’t until he transferred to Chatsworth High School in the San Fernando Valley that he began to pursue his passion by acting in plays. During his senior year, he appeared as Captain George Von Trapp opposite Mare Winningham in the senior class production of The Sound of Music.
Now known as Kevin Spacey (dropping Fowler in favor of his mother’s maiden name), he tried his hand at stand-up comedy before enrolling in New York’s prestigious Julliard School of the Arts as a drama major in 1979.
"I feel that I very often watch a lot of young people sort of meander around without any idea about why they're doing what they're doing," he would say years later. "If you feel you have something to give, if you feel that your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for, then there's nothing you can't achieve."

Confident that he could achieve more by pursuing professional opportunities than by continuing his studies at Julliard, Spacey left the school after two years and got a job as an assistant with the New York Shakespeare Festival, then guided by the legendary director Joseph Papp. But after seeing Spacey in an off-off-off Broadway play, he told the young actor that he needed to pursue acting full-time. "And in this gentle, fatherly way," Spacey told reporter Luaine Lee, "(Papp) pushed me out the door, and everything changed after that."
In 1982, he made his Broadway debut in a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Four years later, he would appear in a production of Eugene O’ Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night with the man who he would come to regard as his mentor, Jack Lemmon. Of Lemmon, Spacey said, "He was always someone I could pick up the phone and call for advice. He was a father figure to me, always open, and gave me great advice." In future years, he would make two more appearances with Lemmon, first in the 1988 made for television film, The Murder of Mary Phagan, and then as part of the all-star ensemble of 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross. Upon winning the Oscar as best actor in American Beauty, Spacey would praise Lemmon for providing the inspiration for his performance.
But before joining the ranks of Hollywood’s A list, Spacey found small roles in such films as Heartburn, the 1986 Mike Nichols film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson that marked his big-screen debut. He would later tell a reporter for the U.K. edition of Elle that the director "let me watch Nicholson, who I didn't have any scenes with in Heartburn, and I learned a lot just from observing him close up."
Spacey also had roles in Henry and June, the Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and in another film for Mike Nichols, 1988's Working Girl starring Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith.
Spacey also found roles on television in such popular shows as "Crime Story," "L.A. Law," and "Wiseguy." His performance as the smooth villain Mel Profitt on the latter show would earn considerable praise from fans of that stylish crime drama, but it also typecast him as a manipulative creep, a good description of his role as the wife swapping neighbor in 1992's Consenting Adults.
Until Consenting Adults, he told The Times of London, "I was kind of this obscure New York stage actor that the studios had never heard of." But now, offers for major films began coming his way.
In 1992, he would also appear in the film version of David Mamet’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross. As the unsympathetic office manager greedily refusing to give the desperate real estate salesmen the "good leads" they believe will help them save their jobs, Spacey was, in the words of Roger Ebert, "unblinking and cold." Al Pacino would earn an Oscar nomination for his role as one of the more confident salesmen, but Glengarry Glen Ross was very much an ensemble piece with Spacey holding his own alongside an impressive cast that included such seasoned veterans as Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Jonathan Pryce.
Spacey co-produced 1994's Swimming With Sharks, an inside look at the lower rungs of the film business. Once again, he was a boss from the darker pits of hell, humiliating his employees, and memorably admonishing one with the following declaration: "" Dismissing the film as a "one joke idea," critic Leonard Maltin nonetheless praised Spacey as "galvanizing. He alone makes the film worth seeing."
But the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross and Swimming With Sharks were merely warm-ups for his unbilled supporting role in 1995's Se7en. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman were the stars of director David Fincher’s macabre thriller, but it was Spacey as "John Doe," a psycho who elaborately murders people he regards as having been guilty of one of the seven deadly sins, whose performance haunts the imagination. With head shaved and eyes that expressed pure evil, Spacey’s sadistic killer might even give Hannibal Lector nightmares. In praising what they called "a kind of New Wave The Silence of the Lambs," Box-Office magazine called Spacey "one of our least-heralded actors," but Se7en and the same year’s The Usual Suspects would change that in short order.
Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects has acquired a strong cult of admirers (the film currently ranks in the top 30 in the Internet Movie Database’s ongoing poll of the best movies), but while Todd McCarthy in Variety praised it as an "absorbingly complicated yarn" worthy of comparison with John Huston’s classic The Asphalt Jungle, others found it too complicated and clever for its own good. Roger Ebert, in his one-and-a-half star review, said that "there was less to understand than the movie at first suggests." Once again, Spacey was part of an ensemble, but rather than merely holding his own, he ran away with the honors as Verbal Kint, one of several low-lifes hauled in by the police for interrogation after a huge fire engulfs a ship. Spacey won the Oscar as best supporting actor.
In accepting his prize, Spacey closed with a few heartfelt words directed to his mother: "Thank you so much for driving me to those acting classes on Ventura Boulevard when I was 16. I told you they would payoff, and here's the pudding! Thank you!"
In 1996, he would play a district attorney in the film of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, appear as himself in Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, and turn director himself with Albino Alligator, a crime drama about three thieves holding three bar patrons hostage. Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway, and Gary Sinise starred in the film from a script by Christian Forte, the son of ‘50's pop idol Fabian, while Spacey remained off-camera and won high marks from Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. "Amazingly, Spacey creates dynamism in a stagy setting and draws astute performances," Travers wrote, but observed that his "deft directing can't offset a script that wants to be Chinatown and ends up as indigestible chop suey."
The success he was experiencing in his career meant that the press began to pry into his private life. Spacey’s refusal to discuss his personal life only encouraged the supermarket tabloids to speculate on his sexuality. Even more "respectable" publications got into the act. In a 1997 cover story, Esquire famously lured readers with a blurb claiming that "Kevin Spacey has a secret." If he did, it wasn’t revealed in the pages of Esquire. Calling the piece "dishonest and malicious," Spacey added that it "proved that the legacy of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well." When still being questioned about his personal life years later, he refused to discuss it, saying, "I don’t talk about any of that stuff."
Some of the questions about his sex life may have been inspired by his role of Jim Williams, the gay, eccentric, nouveau riche bon vivant of Savannah society in Clint Eastwood’s ambitious but disappointing adaptation of John Berendt’s best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The 1997 film failed to live up to expectations, but Spacey was once again superb. On the film’s official soundtrack, he also had the opportunity to show another side of his talent by crooning Johnny Mercer’s "That Old Black Magic." Spacey would later lament that he had insufficient time to rehearse the song, but the audience that ventured into theaters to see the film or who had bought the soundtrack would get a glimpse of a talent he would use more fully in the future.
L.A. Confidential received a better reception from critics in 1997, with many of them hailing Curtis Hanson’s mystery as the best film in a year when the Oscars, and most of the box-office, went to the epic Titanic. Set in the 1950's, the complicated tale of corruption in the Los Angeles police department paid tribute to film noir, a genre that didn’t receive its due until the era in which it flourished was long gone. But L.A Confidential was more than an homage. It looked as if it had actually been made several decades earlier. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised the film as "so powerfully entertaining that it seems a strange artifact from another age - a time when story, characters, and milieu worked together on the screen as devastating fiction and in the moviegoer's mind as memory and desire."
As the only member of the cast with an Oscar on his mantle, Spacey received top billing, but he once more shared the screen equally with other actors, including a pre-stardom Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger (who would claim a best supporting actress Oscar), and James Cromwell. Though each had their moments, Spacey had the most flamboyant role as Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes, a well-dressed investigator who serves as the consultant on a TV show patterned after Jack Webb’s "Dragnet." In 1997, Spacey also followed in the footsteps of many another film star by starting his own company, Trigger Street Productions.
The next year, he lent his voice to the animated A Bug’s Life, joined Samuel L. Jackson in the action thriller The Negotiator, and once more appeared in an ensemble piece, joining Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Robin Wright Penn, Anna Paquin, and Meg Ryan in the film version of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly. Another cynical look at the fast life and times of Hollywood players, Spacey, along with Penn, earned high marks from critics, few of whom were enthused with the film as a whole.
Enthusiasm was not is short supply for 1999's American Beauty, however. Upon reading the script, Spacey said, "I nearly fell out of bed. I thought I better meet him quick before someone else read it."
Directed by Sam Mendes, American Beauty would become Spacey’s biggest success to date. An amusing but ultimately tragic critique of those who find that the American Dream is just that, a dream, Spacey was cast as Lester Burnham who tells us that "I feel like I've been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I'm just now waking up."
Middle-aged and believing, quite rightly, that his wife, daughter, and employer do not appreciate him, he becomes infatuated with one of his daughter’s friends, a beautiful cheerleader. It is his feelings for the girl that inspires his emergence from that coma, and he begins a rebellion against the oppressive forces in his life.
Calling Spacey an actor who "embodies intelligence in his eyes and voice," Roger Ebert was not alone in believing the actor managed to turn an essentially tragic character into something resembling a hero. "He does reckless and foolish things in this movie, but he doesn't deceive himself; he knows he's running wild - and chooses to, burning up the future years of an empty lifetime for a few flashes of freedom. He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he's no longer a loser."
With American Beauty, Spacey was now a widely recognized star, as well as a widely respected actor. Shortly before the film opened to rapturous praise, Spacey received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Other honors followed, including a Golden Globe and another Oscar, this time as best actor, one of five, including best picture, that the Academy bestowed upon the film.
"This is the highlight of my day," Spacey said when accepting his second Oscar. "I hope it is not all downhill from here."
Unfortunately, Spacey’s film career did start to go downhill, leading some to believe he was a victim of a supposed "Oscar curse." Later, Spacey acknowledged that he reached a peak with American Beauty, but seemed unconcerned that he hasn’t duplicated or repeated the success that the film represented.
"What was I going to spend the rest of my life doing?" he asked. "Trying to top myself? Trying to stay hot, trying to make sure I was in the right movies?"
He insisted he has another goal: "I am interested in the impact I can have on a lot of other people's careers and on audiences."
Pay It Forward, released in 2000, had an impact, but not the one Spacey would likely have desired. "Man, oh man, is this a lousy movie," Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. "And it comes from smart people who should know better." The smart people included Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment, and though the cast earned its share of praise, this attempt at a "feel good" movie based on the proposition that one good turn will automatically lead to another was mawkish, sappy stuff indeed.
K-Pax, with Spacey as a man who claims to be an alien from another planet, wasn’t much better and now Spacey himself was receiving unflattering notices. Critic Alexander Walker believed K-Pax required the actor "to punch well below his dramatic weight."
Perhaps if 2001's The Shipping News had arrived without the Oscar "buzz" it was attracting long before its release, the film based on Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel might have fared better. Beautifully shot in scenic Newfoundland at the author’s insistence, Spacey played a lovable loser named Quoyle, an ink setter for a Poughkeepsie, N.Y. newspaper whose life takes several disastrous turns before he decides to accompany his aunt to Newfoundland where he finds a job as a reporter and love with a widowed Julianne Moore.
A pleasant, low-key drama with an equally low-key touch of humor, The Shipping News offered Spacey what he told Entertainment Weekly was "the role I wanted to play a long time ago." In his review of the film, the same magazine’s Owen Glieberman labeled it "a limp and sodden downer," and also took Spacey to task for a performance he judged to consist of "not much more than standing around in a black wool cap looking fleshy and morose, as if he were a schoolboy about to burst into tears."
Andrew Sarris of The New York Observer came to the film’s defense, calling it "the most underrated film of 2001," but The Shipping News, unfairly perceived as "Oscar bait," won neither Oscars nor an audience, though Spacey would receive a Golden Globe nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press as best actor.
Before the film’s release, Spacey told a reporter from Scripps Howard News Service that "I'm afraid of failing constantly, and sometimes I do fail. And when I fail, I'm probably a bigger target then maybe someone else who fails because there is certain expectation, that every time out, I'll knock it out of the park."
Spacey was proving to be a target with each new film. In The Times of London, Sean Macaulay suggested that Spacey’s post American Beauty roles were not up to snuff with the often cynical, sarcastic characters for which he first earned praise. "Now he could play more regular characters," Macaulay noted, but suggested "the pendulum has swung too far the other way."
Ordinary Decent Criminal, which he also produced and directed, went straight to video, and 2003's Life of David Gale, with Spacey as a philosophy professor who crusades against the death penalty while he awaits execution for rape and murder, was labeled "muttonhead entertainment" by The Washington Post and "the worst major studio release of the year" by London’s The Telegraph.
In 2003, he also announced that he had agreed to become artistic director of London’s Old Vic, where he had starred in a production of Eugene O’ Neill’s The Iceman Cometh five years earlier, winning the London Theater Critics Circle award for best actor in a drama. In addition to starring in two shows a season, Spacey directed several of the eight shows staged each season. Of his duties, Spacey said he was "trying to do things now that are much bigger than myself and outside of myself." Although he expressed no plans to abandon movies, he claimed to be uncomfortable with the "attention, praise, awards, the yada-yada! I have never liked it at all."
In The Washington Times, Gary Arnold called Spacey’s next film, 2004's The United States of Leland, another "in Kevin Spacey’s recent string of bummers," but Beyond the Sea, released later that year, was his most ambitious project to date. Spacey produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay, as well as took on the role of Bobby Darin, the teen idol of the ‘50s and nightclub, TV, and movie star of the ‘60's, who died at age 37 in 1973 of a heart ailment that plagued his life since childhood. What really took audiences and critics by surprise was Spacey’s controversial decision to sing Darin’s songs himself, rather than lip-synch to his classic recordings.
"I didn’t want to be tied to an imitation," he told USA Today.
For Spacey, Beyond the Sea was a labor of love. In an interview with The New York Post, Spacey explained his fascination with Bobby Darin: "I liked how he overcame adversity. He demanded lots from himself and others."
Spacey, whose appreciation for Darin’s music came from his mother, struggled for years to bring the singer’s story to the screen, but even with two Oscars to his name, he had to fight the opinion of studio executives that he was too old for the part, as well as the belief that Darin had been forgotten by modern audiences.
Spacey also had to convince Darin’s surviving son and his former manager, Steve Blauner, that he was not only the man for the role, but that he could do his own singing. "The first thing (Blauner) said to me was, ‘I don't think you should sing it, I don't think you should direct it and you're too old to play Bobby.’" After six hours of discussion, however, Blauner, convinced Spacey was motivated by a genuine desire to honor Darin, gave him his blessing.
Released almost simultaneously with Ray, the biopic of Ray Charles that would win an Oscar for Jamie Foxx, Beyond the Sea was somewhat overshadowed, faring poorly at the box-office but earning Spacey some of the best reviews of his career.
In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers found fault with Spacey’s direction, but said "the actor forges a bond with his subject that rights all wrongs. Doing his own singing (an uncanny imitation), Spacey is a marvel. He turns acting into riveting reincarnation and redoubles our appreciation of Darin, an underrated performer who used music to cheat death." The Hollywood Reporter called it a "triumph of art and entertainment from very talented Mr. Spacey."
Despite the film’s lukewarm reception at the box-office, Spacey, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, was satisfied that the film helped to introduce Darin to a new generation and also spurred sales of Darin’s CD catalog. Shortly after the film’s release, Spacey even took his portrayal of Darin on the road, touring nine cities with a 19 member band.
On the surface, Edison looked like the film that might reverse Spacey’s sagging fortunes at the box-office. In addition to Spacey and fellow Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, it marked the acting debut of pop star Justin Timberlake and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. But Scott Foundas, reviewing the film for Variety, proved prophetic when he suggested the film "should be coming soon to a cable channel and a video store near you."
Superman Returns was a hit, however, in summer 2006. Once more sporting a shaved head, Spacey played Lex Luthor, the Man of Steel’s archenemy previously played by Gene Hackman in the hit film starring the late Christopher Reeve. Brandon Routh, making his debut as the comic book superhero, commanded most of the attention, but Spacey was effectively and amusingly cast, helping to anchor the fantasy in reality. The film also reunited Spacey with Bryan Singer, the director of The Usual Suspects.
During an interview with Craig Modderno of London Calling, Spacey was asked if he considered himself a movie star, an actor, or both.
"I'm a character actor," he said, "which really knocks me down even a better peg."
Though Spacey’s assessment of his standing may have a self-deprecating tone, it’s actually a perfect description of a performer who could so effortlessly segue from playing the villain in a comic book fantasy to tackling the title role of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which he did on stage at the Old Vic at the same time that Superman Returns was reintroducing the Man of Steel to film audiences after a 19 year absence.
Like his mentor, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey is first and foremost an actor. The fact that he’s also a movie star is almost beside the point. "I long for the ritual of theater," he says. "I adore it. And I want to do plays that challenge me."
And he can still be the coolest cat in the room.

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