The price of fame: The final reel of Chris Penn

One of Hollywood's most perplexing actors has died at the age of 40. Brother of Sean Penn and a self-confessed cocaine addict, fans of offbeat movies will mourn his loss. By Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent US

Think of Chris Penn and it's hard not to associate him with the sorts of characters he's played so often on the big screen: quiet, unassuming types whose power and frequently volcanic range of emotions creep up on you almost unawares. He'll always be remembered as one of the brilliant, tough, troubled young actors whose talents became searingly apparent in Reservoir Dogs, the blood-spattered Quentin Tarantino male-bonding gabfest from the early Nineties.

Perhaps inevitably, he will always be thought of as Sean Penn's kid brother, another ferocious talent from one of Hollywood's most prominent showbiz families who, for reasons of happenstance, personal complication or sheer dumb luck, never scaled the same career heights or attracted the same wild adulation from the critics. Now, poignantly, he has given us something else to remember him by: a sudden and untimely death.

His housekeeper found him lying immobile in bed when she arrived at his beachside condominium on Tuesday afternoon. She alerted the Santa Monica police who rushed to the scene and formally pronounced him dead. He was, by most accounts, only 40 years old.

A police spokesman said last night the authorities had ruled out murder or any other kind of foul play. The coroner's office was investigating and planned to carry out toxicology tests. There was no word on whether drugs might have been involved, or if Penn had been suffering from any particular health problems, or what his mental state might have been at the time of death.

His publicist, Mara Buxbaum, put out a very short statement saying only that "the Penn family would appreciate the media's respect of their privacy during this difficult time".

Shortly after the news broke, a small contingent of television cameras gathered outside his building on Ocean Avenue, on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Martin Sheen, an old friend of the Penn family, was seen with Penn's mother, the actress Eileen Ryan, leaving by a back entrance.

Fans of Chris Penn's work, meanwhile, were left to reflect that they had seen altogether too little of his talent - most especially in the past decade or so, when his weight ballooned and his roles veered ever more towards the forgettable. One of his last performances, opposite Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder in an independently produced, ghoulish comedy called The Darwin Awards, was scheduled to have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last night. That might yet prove to be a final bright spot in a career sadly reduced to bit parts in low-profile productions and a voiceover in the video game Grand Theft Auto.

Most of the instant obituaries focused instead on the work that brought him to prominence at much the same time as his brother Sean: the Francis Ford Coppola teenage drama Rumble Fish, his first part of any note when he played opposite Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke (1983); the dance movie Footloose, in which his rural hick character is improbably coaxed on to a dance floor and taught a few moves (1984); and Reservoir Dogs, in which he played Nice Guy Eddie, the dutiful son of the criminal mastermind behind a botched robbery.

It may be, though, that his finest performances were in films that much of mainstream America overlooked. In Robert Altman's kaleidoscopic portrait of Los Angeles, Short Cuts, a film that has a towering reputation among cinema buffs and film students but never a huge amount of commercial traction, he was brilliant as a brooding, emotionally clumsy pool cleaner who can't handle the fact that his wife earns her money as a phone sex operator. A few years later, he ran the emotional gamut as an outwardly charming but mentally unhinged mafioso in Abel Ferrara's The Funeral.

For all his bravura, none of these were parts that could, in the end, earn him a mainstream following or attract the attention of Academy Awards voters. Sean Penn, by contrast, was altogether more successful in channelling his on-screen emotional intensity into a real Hollywood career. In the same mid-1990s period, Sean got himself noticed playing a corrupt lawyer in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, then went on to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar as a condemned murderer in Tim Robbins' capital punishment morality piece Dead Man Walking.

There are plentiful indications that both Penn brothers had their wild moments - Sean, notoriously, punched a press photographer and once spent 32 days as an inmate of the Los Angeles County jail for a separate assault incident. But Chris's demons were of a particularly dark variety. As he told this newspaper in a 1996 interview, he was addicted to cocaine for five years - and had to struggle mightily to come back out of his addiction. "It happened gradually," he said at the time. "I started to play around with it a little bit and then I had a tragedy happen. I lost a daughter - she was only two days old, she was born premature and her lungs were just too weak - and I went kind of overboard. I just used it as an excuse to do as many drugs as I could. It took me a year or so to figure out what I was doing, and by then I was completely addicted."

His weight gain began around the same time. At first, his physical solidity was an asset he used to bring both physical bulk and a certain lumbering quality to his roles as both criminals and cops. It's hard to believe, though, that his weight did not become an obstacle with casting directors constrained by Hollywood's unforgiving beauty ethic.

While Sean went on to triumph after triumph - The Thin Red Line, Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, for which he was nominated for another Oscar, I Am Sam and Mystic River - Chris all but disappeared from public view. The divergent fortunes of the Penn brothers became so stark, in fact, that one film writer, Cintra Wilson, was moved to pen a 3,500-word piece full of rage and indignation a couple of years ago in which she suggested not only that Chris had been unjustly overlooked but that he was at least as talented as Sean.

"Sean Penn is phenomenal because he never does the most obvious, first-thought thing -- he adds a considered layer of character spin on top of every reaction," Wilson wrote for the online magazine "OK, that's great, very impressive - but Chris Penn does this other thing - he makes you seamlessly believe in characters so much you barely even notice them... Sean is a showboat, a scenery chewer; Chris is the opposite - a stealth bomb."

Wilson eloquently pinpointed one of the reasons why Chris was not only so good, but also so unusual. "Chris is an expert at the one complicated emotional state Sean doesn't really display much of. Red-faced humiliation. Ego crush. The hyper-vulnerable, exposed weakness of the bed-wetter, the sad sack... the hapless loser, the beta male," she wrote.

Both actors come from a remarkable family. Their father, Leo Penn, was a television director; their mother, Eileen Ryan, is also an actor, who has appeared with both of them at different times and also with the two of them together, in Close Range (1986), when they played brothers and she was their grandmother. (That Hollywood beauty ethic again.) There is also an older third brother, Michael, who is an accomplished if underrated musician and songwriter and composer. The family grew up comfortably near the beach in Los Angeles, and the boys all went through the public school system. At Santa Monica High, Sean and Chris were classmates with Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, the actor sons of Martin Sheen, and with Rob and Chad Lowe. They took acting classes at Peggy Feury's Loft Studio.

Chris Penn dropped out of Santa Monica High School - in his 1996 interview, he said the school was as keen to get rid of him as he was to leave. As he made his first forays into the film business, he joined a gym and started to get serious about kick-boxing. He kept up the hobby at least until the mid-1990s. When he spoke to The Independent, he had just visited an East London boxing gym and had his face cut open by an opponent's glove laces.

He came across then as a tricky personality, veering between diffidence and warmth with little warning. His private life was not something that spilled out much into the public arena. For several years he dated an Asian model called Stefianna Delacruz, but unlike his brothers, didn't manage to settle down. (Sean, who was briefly married to Madonna in the 1980s, has been with the actress Robin Wright Penn for 15 years.) It's not known whether he had a girlfriend at the time of his death, or what kind of life he had been leading. The one gloomy fact that we do know is that he was alone. That's a fate nobody deserves, especially not someone so young, so talented, and so often unjustly underestimated.