Christopher Shannon Penn was born on October 10, 1965 in Los Angeles, California, the third son of actress Eileen Ryan (née Annucci) and director, actor, and writer Leo Penn. His siblings are musician Michael Penn and actor Sean Penn. His father was from a Lithuanian Jewish/Russian Jewish family, and his mother is of half Italian and half Irish descent.
Penn set out to follow in his parents’ footsteps and started acting at age twelve in the Loft Studio. While in high school he and his brother Sean made several shorts with their classmates, which included such would-be stars as Emilio Estevez and Rob Lowe. Penn made his onscreen debut in the Christopher Cain movie, Charlie and the Talking Buzzard (1979). After a few years Penn caught the eye of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in a supporting role in the teen drama Rumble Fish (1983). Although the film was a flop critically and commercially, Penn’s career was well under way.
That same year he acted in All the Right Moves (1983), a high school drama film starring a young Tom Cruise. The next year Penn gave a performance in Footloose (1984), starring Kevin Bacon and dealing with a small town which bans rock & roll music. The movie was a smash hit, and remains a classic to this day. Penn followed this up with a villainous role in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), and the crime movie At Close Range (1986), starring Christopher Walken.
Penn acted in a few smaller productions until he was cast as Travis Brickley in the sports drama Best of the Best (1989). Penn’s character is a martial arts fighter who joins the other main characters when they enter a taekwondo tournament against the Korean team. The movie spawned several sequels, though Penn only appeared in the first and second films. A few more jobs followed until Penn landed what is known as his most famous movie: Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). The indie crime film concerned a heist gone wrong, as the criminals search for a rat in their midst. Penn played the role of Nice Guy Eddie, the son of the old gangster that arranges the heist. The film continues to receive acclaim as a classic movie and as the start of Tarantino’s directing career. Penn also acted in the Tarantino-scripted Tony Scott crime movie True Romance (1993), albeit in a much smaller role. Penn also took a supporting role in the ensemble film Short Cuts (1993) by Robert Altman.
After participating in these acclaimed films, Penn took on several smaller projects, including a role as the villain in the second “Beethoven” movie. In this period of time, Penn acted in such films as the crime film Mulholland Falls (1996), set in the 1950s. Penn then gave one of his greatest performances in the Abel Ferrara crime drama The Funeral (1996). The movie starred Christopher Walken, Penn, and Vincent Gallo as three brothers who are involved in the world of crime, even as it threatens to take them all down. Penn plays Chez, the middle brother, who has a very short temper. Penn also sang a song in the film as his character. While the film was well received critically and Penn received an award for Best Supporting Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his excellent performance, The Funeral (1996) went largely unseen. Penn followed up with the Canadian film The Boys Club (1996), the crime thriller One Tough Cop (1998), and a supporting role in the hit comedy Rush Hour (1998).
Following his latest success, Penn acted in the drama-comedy The Florentine (1999), the English comedy Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang) (2001), and the crime thriller Murder by Numbers (2002). Penn was also one of the many stars that acted in the box office failure Masked and Anonymous (2003), starring Bob Dylan. The last few years of his career mainly featured supporting roles in such movies as After the Sunset (2004), Starsky & Hutch (2004), and the Canadian crime film King of Sorrow (2007), his last film appearance. Throughout his life Penn had had battles with heart disease and multiple drug use. He was found dead in his home on January 24, 2006. He was only forty years old.
Penn left behind a career that featured many roles in small, independent productions as well as several very well known films. Penn worked with several esteemed directors and fellow actors, lending his talent to both television and film. Although he never received nearly as much attention or as many awards as his brother Sean, Chris Penn will always be remembered by those who watch movies and appreciate his work.
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