Initially known as a teen idol thanks to his role on 21 Jump Street and tortured pretty-boy looks, Johnny Depp survived the perils of adolescent heartthrob status to earn a reputation as a respected adult actor. His numerous collaborations with director Tim Burton, as well as solid performances in a number of critically acclaimed films, have allowed Depp to carve a niche for himself as a serious, if idiosyncratic performer, a real-life role that has continuously surprised critics intent on writing him off as just another photogenic Tiger Beat casualty.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Florida,Depp had the kind of upbringing that would readily lend itself to his future portrayals of brooding lost boys. After his parents divorced when he was 16, he dropped out of school a year later in the hopes of making his way in the world as a musician. Depp fronted a series of garage bands; the most successful of these, the Kids, was once the opening act for Iggy Pop. During slack times in the music business, Depp sold pens by phone. He got introduced to acting after a visit to L.A. with his former wife, who introduced him to actor Nicolas Cage, who encouraged Depp to give it a try. The young actor made his film debut in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street (years after attaining stardom, Depp sentimentally played a cameo in the last of the Elm Street series), and his climb to fame was accelerated in 1987, when he replaced Jeff Yagher in the role of Officer Tom Hanson, a cop assigned to do undercover duty by posing as a student in crime-ridden Los Angeles-area high schools, in the Canadian-filmed Fox TV series 21 Jump Street (1987-90). Biding his time in "teen heartthrob" roles, Depp was first given a chance to exhibit his exhausting versatility in the title role of Tim Burton's fantasy Edward Scissorhands (1990).
Following the success of Edward Scissorhands, the actor made a conscious and successful effort never to repeat himself in his subsequent characterizations. He continued to gain critical acclaim and increasing popularity for his work, most notably in Benny & Joon (1993), in which he played a troubled young man who fancies himself the reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), which cast him as its title character, a young man dissatisfied with the confines of his small-town life. Following Gilbert Grape, Depp outdid himself in Burton's Ed Wood (1994), with his outrageous but lovable portrayal of the angora-sweater-worshipping World's Worst Film Director. The same year, he further exercised his versatility playing a 19th-century accountant in Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's otherworldly Western. With his excellent portrayal of the titular undercover FBI agent in Mike Newell's 1997 Donnie Brasco, Depp continued to ascend the Hollywood ranks. After a starring turn as Hunter S. Thompson's alter ego in Terry Gilliam's trippy adaptation of -Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Depp tried his hand at sci-fi horror with The Astronaut's Wife in 1999. That same year, he again collaborated with Burton on Sleepy Hollow, starring as a prim, driven Ichabod Crane in the remake of Washington Irving's classic tale of gothic terror. Appearing the following year in the small but popular romantic drama Chocolat, Depp jumped back into the big time with his role as real-life cocaine kingpin George Jung in Blow (2001) before gearing up for roles in the Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell (2001) and Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).
In what was perhaps his most surprising departure since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp shed his oftentimes angst-ridden persona for a role as flamboyant pirate Jack Sparrow in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean. Essaying the crusty role in the manner of a drunken, debauched rock star -- Depp publicly admitted Keith Richards was his inspiration -- the actor added a dose of off-kilter fun to an above-average summer thrill ride, and found himself with his biggest hit and first Oscar nomination ever.
By this point in his wildly varied career, even Depp's most devoted fans would be hard pressed to speculate on the trajectory of his future, and the only certainty seemed to be that whatever role he accepted, it would be chosen on his own terms. Shortly after making his maiden voyage into the horrific world of Stephen King with an amusingly disheveled performance in Secret Window, Depp warmed to a wider audience with another Oscar-nominated performance, as author J.M. Barrie in the critically acclaimed Finding Neverland. A tale of wonder based on the friendship that inspired Barrie to pen the classic tale -Peter Pan, Finding Neverland earned wide praise from audiences and critics alike. After once again re-teaming with director Burton for both a vocal performance in the animated feature The Corpse Bride and a role as mysterious candy magnate Willy Wonka in 2005, Depp reprised his popular role as Jack Sparrow in the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which shattered box-office records. He also made plans to again work with Tim Burton, this time on an adaptation of Sweeney Todd, which was released in 2007 -- a year that would also see the release of the third Pirates movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The former earned him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and the latter maintained his status as a formidable box-office force. Around this time, Depp began flexing his producing muscles, lending his talent in that capacity to both a big-screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary.
In addition to his acting, Depp has also gained a certain amount of fame for his romantic involvements with several starlets and celebrities, including Winona Ryder, Sherilyn Fenn, and Kate Moss. In 1999, he fathered a daughter with French singer/actress Vanessa Paradis, as well as a son in 2002. He was also the owner of the Viper Room, a popular L.A. nightspot which gained notoriety when actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose on its doorstep in 1993.
Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide