Spacey to hold visiting professorship at Oxford

He came from Hollywood to revive the Old Vic and embraced British culture to such an extent that he once turned up at a Labour Party conference. Now, Kevin Spacey has joined forces with another British institution, Oxford University.

Following in the footsteps of the author Martin Amis, who has also applied his creative powers to academia, Spacey has been appointed the next Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine's College. He will take over the post from Patrick Stewart, a Briton who made it big in America playing the Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

The chair's previous incumbents include Stephen Sondheim, Alan Ayckbourn, Dame Diana Rigg, Richard Eyre and Sir Tim Rice.

The role, funded by the Mackintosh Foundation and set up by the West End impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, aims to promote interest in and the study and practice of contemporary theatre.

Spacey will take up the post in October. His tenure will last for one year and he is free to approach the job however he likes. Each term he will be expected to deliver a seminar, lecture or workshop. The actor/director said: "It really is an honour for me to have been invited to follow such illustrious names and take up this role at Oxford. The university is steeped in tradition and has a great heritage in the arts and I look forward to working with the students and staff."

Professor Roger Ainsworth, master of St Catherine's, said: "Kevin Spacey does plan to be very hands-on. He is thinking about what he wants to do in his inaugural talk, but he wants to work very closely with the students – which is one of the aims of the Cameron Mackintosh Chair."

He added: "Patrick Stewart had blockbuster audiences. We had to turn hundreds of students away. He also took parties of students to see him rehearse Macbeth so they could see how it all works."

Spacey, who was born in 1959 in South Orange, New Jersey, is the youngest of three children of Thomas Fowler, a writer who produced "how to..." manuals, and his wife Kathleen. His parents sent him to military academy after he burned down his sister's treehouse, but he was expelled after hitting a classmate with a tyre. He started acting at high school and took his impressions of celebrities including Johnny Carson and James Stewart to venues on California's amateur comedy club circuit.

Using his mother's maiden name, he went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York, but left after two years and joined the New York Shakespeare Festival. His first professional appearance was as a messenger in a 1981 production of Henry VI.

In the 1990s, he conquered Hollywood with films including American Beauty and The Usual Suspects, which won him Oscars for best actor and best supporting actor respectively, as well as Superman Returns, LA Confidential and Beyond The Sea, which he also directed.

In 1998, he appeared in The Iceman Cometh at the Almeida in London, which transferred to the Old Vic. Five years later, he was appointed artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company, where he directed its first production, Cloaca. He has continued to act at the theatre as well as overseeing its output, appearing in The Philadelphia Story, Trevor Nunn's Richard II and the critically-acclaimed A Moon for the Misbegotten.

A life in drama

*After studying drama at the Juilliard School in New York, Spacey made his first professional appearance in 1981, playing a messenger in Henry VI. He made his Broadway debut a year later in Ibsen's Ghosts.

*His film career began with a bit-part as a thief on the subway in the 1986 romantic comedy Heartburn.

*Spacey became a household name with the release of The Usual Suspects in 1995, which won him an Oscar for best supporting actor. The same year he appeared in Se7en, and in 1999 took the best actor Oscar for American Beauty.

*In 2003 he was made artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company in London, but vowed not to turn his back on films.

*In 1998, he said: "The less you know about me, the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on screen."