Sean Penn was born on 17 August 1960 in Burbank, California, the second of three sons. His father was the TV and film director Leo Penn, his mother the actress Eileen Ryan, who retired when he was born. His younger brother Christopher has become an actor of some repute (Reservoir Dogs, Pale Rider, At Close Range), while his older sibling Micheal, is a successful singer/songwriter (No Myth).
For the first ten years of his life, Sean lived in different parts of LA's San Fernando Valley, from North Hollywood to Woodland Hills. When he was 10, the family moved to Malibu, where Sean became obsessed with surfing. His friends included neighborhood boys Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen and Rob Lowe, and they would often dabble in a bit Super-8 film making, although this was nothing more than a hobby. The surf was still Sean's first love.
After graduating from Santa Monica High School, he skipped college and spent two years with the Los Angeles Group Repertory Theater, where he worked backstage and directed a one act play, Terrible Jim Fitch. He then studied with the legendary drama coach Peggy Feury and, at 19, made his professional acting debut with one line in an episode of TV's Barnaby Jones. He had a supporting role in the acclaimed TV movie The Killing Of Randy Webster, with Hal Holbrook, and appeared in Hellinger's Law, an unsuccessful pilot for a TV series starring Telly Savalas.
Dissatisfied with TV, he bought a one-way ticket to New York and tried his luck on stage. His first audition was for the Broadway play Heartland, and it went badly. Nevertheless, a second reading won him the role and decent reviews which, in turn, led to his first film, Taps.
Set in a military academy, the movie starred Timothy Hutton as a rebellious cadet with newcomers Penn and Tom Cruise as his partners-in -defiance. Penn simply acted his co-star off the screen and was immediately the talk of Hollywood as the Next Big Thing. He landed top-billing in the riotous high school comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High playing the spaced out surfer Jeff Spicoli who famously orders pizza in the middle of Penn was very, very funny, the film was a hit and a whole school of new stars graduated with honors.
Penn turned to drama with Rick Rosenthal's hard-hitting Bad Boys. Penn was sensational in a part he studied for rigorously, accompanying Chicago's police gang-crimes unit on duty and reportedly applying real tattoos to his arms. Generally, the film was extremely well acted by a cast of young unknowns, but Penn towered over them all, displaying the steely bile of a latter-day James Cagney.
In Crackers he returned to comedy, with Donald Sutherland. Penn had the lead in Richard Benjamin's war-time romance Racing With The Moon, a turgid, period-bound piece that failed to arouse any sympathies for its protagonists. He played Henry Nash, the son of a graver-digger who falls for the local Gatsby girl, Elizabeth McGovern. Rumors of an off-set romance were reported, but worse, word got out that Penn persuaded McGovern not to publicize the picture. "Totally bogus", the actor scoffed. "I was busy in Mexico shooting another movie. There wasn't time to allow me to participate in the publicity for the film. But the people involved in that movie didn't respect my answer when I said no, and then they did something I don't believe has been done any other time: They spoke in public against the actor who was in their movie! They also insinuated that I had influenced the other actors. I wouldn't play the game. I'd had no problems at all with the press up to that time. I was doing what I wanted to do - I was acting. I was trying to do the best job that I could".
The Mexican film was John Schlesinger's The Falcon And The Snowman, the true story of two young men (Penn, Timothy Hutton) who decide to sell government secrets to the Russian. Sean Penn's next movie, At Close Range, directed by James Foley, another true life drama, about a teenage boy (Penn) who comes to blows with his criminal father (Christopher Walken).
It was at this time that the actor entered into a whirlwind romance with -and married- Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, whose song "Live To Tell" was featured on the soundtrack of At Close Range. If the paparazzi was finding Penn a pain, they unleashed a monster when they zoned in on his wife. Unlike her husband, Madonna was not adverse to publicity, but even she found the mounting battery of flash-bulbs an unwelcomed intrusion." You have understand", Penn explains, "when Madonna and I got together, she was an up-and-coming star. She was not a superstar; she was not an icon. Soon she became public property, and her husband-tobe was treated likewise".
The couple's wedding turned into the ultimate media circus, with press helicopters hovering above the outdoor ceremony. The groom became so incensed by the intrusion that he reputedly started firing a gun into the air. And Penn doesn't deny it.
Career-wise, he and Madonna teamed up for the abysmal Shanghai Surprise, a movie he did for the money and, no doubt, to be with his wife. Ironically, it was the only film he made during his marriage. After the divorce and tabloid stories of Penn beating Madonna with a baseball bat, the actor simply concede, "I can just say it ended. It just didn't work out".
Penn ended up behind bars, serving 32 days in Los Angeles Country Jail for assaulting a photographer and violating probation.
He returned to the cinema with Colors. Penn took the screenplay to Orion Pictures himself, suggesting that Dennis Hopper direct. Orion agreed, and Hopper had the script re-written to accommodate Penn and co-star Robert Duvall (the original story centered on a black cop and a white cop in Chicago). Colors was a movie both timely and ahead of its time, examing the escalating gang warfare in Los Angeles and the limited police resources to combat it. When the movie opened in April of 1988, it caused such an uproar that many cinemas refused to show it. In New York protests were staged in an attempt to deter cinemagoers, while two days later, in LA, a teenager was shot dead while queering to see it. Arguably, Colors is one Sean Penn's best film , and frightening piece of contemporary cinema veriè.
He had a small part, but was very good, in his father's Judgment In Berlin, playing a German defector (with a convincing accent), and portrayed the brutish Sergeant Meserve in Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War, based on a true story.
Sean Penn acted in another comedy We're No Angels, a re-make of the 1955 with Robert De Niro who mugged shamefully. His next film, the gritty, violent State Of Grace, was about a gang of Irish-American criminals in New York, and the acting honors went to Ed Harris, Gary Oldman and Robin Wright.
The movie introduced Penn to Robin Wright. Of his new girlfriend, Penn said" She's the first young actress of her generation to come along, I think, who has intelligence and elegance. She's been extremely choosy in everything she's done. She's got a really big career ahead of her".
Sean Penn's acting career, however, was about to stop in its tracks. "I hooked into acting real strong", he illuminated, "and it grew into an obsession. It got to be such an obsession that I didn't realize how much I wasn't enjoying it. I got to the place where if I wasn't doing it, it was like withdrawing from an addiction, so that I'd start barfing on the floor or something like that. I realized acting was no longer making me happy".
Instead, he turned to directing and writing, and made the thought-provoking drama The Indian Runner, about two brothers, one a heroic cop (David Morse), the other a self-destructive ex-con (Viggo Mortensen). The film was beautifully crafted and well acted.
For three years after announcing his retirement from appearing in front of the camera. Penn kept to his word, turning down all offers - including a proposition from Mickey Rouke, an actor he much admires.
However, he said that if the price was right, he would act again. This he did, when he accepted a co-starring role in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, playing a lawyer and mercurial friend to Al Pacino's former gangster. He had two nominations for his performance at Academy Award as Best Actor and at Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Drama.
Meanwhile he became father, in fact, his girlfriend Robin Wright gave him two kids: Dylan Frances and Hopper Jack.
After that he embarked on his second film as director, The Crossing Guard, starring Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston and Robin Wright. This film wasn't well accepted by the critics at Venice Festival despite the touching story and the great Jack Nicholoson's performance.
Sean in his private life had some bad moments because of the separation from Robin Wright. Then he returned on the big screen with Dead Man Walking a Tim Robbins' film, where Sean Penn played the role of a prisoner in the death-row. Maybe it was his best performance in his best film. The co-star Susan Sarandon won Academy Award as Best Actress, while Sean Penn got only the Nomination as Best Actor. It was a pity. But, maybe Dead Man Walking was an "inconvenient" film in a Country where there is still the death penalty to give the award to both the actors. Anyway, Sean Penn won as Best Actor for Dead Man Walking at Berlin Festival and at Independent Awards.
After the Academy Award Nomination, Sean Penn received a lot offers, but he was very selective. Meanwhile he married Robin Wright, the mother of his kids and moved to San Francisco.
His first choice was in Nick Cassavetes' film She's So Lovely, playing a crazy character and thanks to that he won as Best Actor at Cannes Festival. Then Penn played some cameos in Hugo Pool and in The Game.
Sean Penn gave another great performance in Oliver Stone's film U-Turn. But he wants to come back directing. He has already written a story, but he is looking for a producer, but everything is kept secret at the moment.