Chris Penn

Compelling supporting actor


Christopher Penn, actor: born Los Angeles 10 October 1965; (one daughter deceased); died Santa Monica, California 24 January 2006.

Chris Penn was destined even in death to remain overshadowed by his Oscar-winning sibling - "Sean Penn's Brother Found Dead," the media reported after his body was found in his apartment in Santa Monica, California on Tuesday.

But, despite uncertain beginnings and a period of derailment in the 1980s, the youngest Penn brother had spent more than a decade carving for himself a distinctive career that in no way overlapped with his brother's more earnest ventures. Which is not to say that Chris Penn wasn't a serious actor prized by notable directors: Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara were among those who got the sour, sleazy best out of him. Indeed, it was his performance as the uncouth gangster Nice Guy Eddie in Tarantino's 1993 début Reservoir Dogs that put Penn back on track.

He was the youngest of three sons born to the director Leo Penn and the actress Eileen Ryan. Five years junior to Sean, and seven years younger than Michael, who was to become a singer-songwriter, Christopher Penn was raised in Los Angeles and gained small film and television parts while still a child.

His first significant film role came at the age of 16 in Coppola's expressionistic teen drama Rumble Fish (1983), alongside Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage. This was followed by All the Right Moves (1983), an early vehicle for Tom Cruise. Immediately, though, it was clear that Penn was less lacquered than these co-stars, who had been bracketed together by the media under the term "Brat Pack", along with the likes of Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Kevin Bacon. Penn proved his lack of vanity playing Bacon's ungainly best friend in Footloose.

Off-screen, he could be just as much of a misfit, having been expelled from school at 15. "They wanted me to leave and I wanted to leave too," he said later. Competing with Sean also made the early stages of his acting career rather fraught, and brought an intriguing frisson to their appearance together in the 1986 thriller At Close Range (in which their mother also starred). "I was in Sean's shadow," remarked Chris Penn. "I felt I had to do what I could to be different. It was unhealthy."

That desire to differentiate himself led to years of self-destructiveness. While Sean Penn developed and then rejected a bad-boy image that seemed to nourish his acting, his kid brother lost all grip on his career. He became addicted to cocaine, and was a regular fixture in Los Angeles bar brawls in the mid-1980s; the death of his two-day-old daughter, born prematurely, only increased his torment. "[Cocaine] was ruining my career," he admitted, "because with it came irresponsibility, a bad attitude, irrational behaviour and bad decisions."

It looked like the end of the story - actors tend not to bounce back from movies as poor as Return from the River Kwai (1989). But Chris Penn's luck was in. He auditioned for Reservoir Dogs, a witty and claustrophobic thriller focusing on the fall-out from a bungled heist:

I read the script and thought, "All I have to do is get this one movie." I knew that part would change everything.

That was quite an understatement. His turn as Nice Guy Eddie - a porcine bullyboy whose garish shell-suit seemed to herald his sociopathic tendencies - rescued him from obscurity. But it did more than that, securing him a place in the public consciousness. From that moment on, any appearance by Penn, even in the lighter roles provided by the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993) or Rush Hour (1998), gave viewers a pre-emptive chill.

He was compelling, untrustworthy and not without a strange sliver of tenderness. Amongst the brutish ensemble cast of Reservoir Dogs, ripe with violence and drunk on testosterone, he proved himself the most fearsome.

Although Reservoir Dogs is the movie for which Penn will be remembered, he was arguably even better in Altman's Short Cuts (1993) and Ferrara's The Funeral (1996). In the former, he was terrifying and heartbreaking as an inarticulate pool-cleaner who rages mutely over his wife's career as a phone-sex worker. Meanwhile, in The Funeral, Ferrara gave the actor yet another plum opportunity to explore the ugliest recesses of masculinity, as one of three criminal brothers. In the eccentric company of Christopher Walken and Vincent Gallo, it would take a lot to stand out. But it is the image of a red-faced, blistering Penn haranguing his wife, played by Isabella Rossellini, that dominates.

Not every part proved such a stretch: Penn's work in Stealing Harvard (2002) and Starsky and Hutch (2004) can't have been much more demanding than the voiceover work he provided for the computer game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He had, though, reversed his slide into anonymity, to establish himself as one of the most forceful, if least endearing, supporting actors in Hollywood.

Ryan Gilbey

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