One of Hollywood's few celebrators of the "Southern bad boy" image, country musician turned actor-screenwriter-director Billy Bob Thornton consistently engenders a reputation -- via chosen onscreen parts and fervent tabloid reports of his allegedly wild off-camera life -- as an iconoclastic American hellraiser with lightning in his veins. But appearances can deceive, for Thornton also reveals depth and complexity as one Hollywood's most articulate interviewees, graced with intelligent, sensitive observations, cultural allusions, and poignant reflections on his experiences as a thespian and film artist. Moreover, this acute insight evidences itself equally in Thornton's craftsmanship as a screenwriter and director. Though his behind-the-camera projects have become increasingly rare over time, his few directorial outings evince surprising control, refinement, insight, and taste.
Born in Hot Springs, AR, on August 4, 1955, Thornton grew up dirt poor in the nearby backwoods community of Alpine. Despite his father's gainful employment as a history teacher, Thornton was forced to live with his parents and grandparents in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing. After high-school graduation, Thornton landed a steady job and got married; neither the job nor the marriage lasted, as Thornton divorced two years later and returned to college to study psychology; however, that didn't last, either -- he decided that his heart lay in rock & roll, and tried and failed to make it in New York. So Thornton returned to his job for awhile until he and Epperson renewed their dedication to a music career. Eventually, he would travel to California to write screenplays. It was a difficult time for Thornton who, in addition to living in poverty, also suffered a near-fatal heart attack.
Thornton eventually turned to acting, making his screen debut in the straight-to-video Hunter's Blood in 1987. Subsequent roles in many forgettable movies followed (including Troma's Chopper Chicks in Zombietown), as did an appearance on the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade; the actor simultaneously weathered several marriages through the '80s and '90s, to Toni Lawrence, Cynda Williams, and Pietra Dawn Cherniak. Then, in 1990, Thornton caught the attention of critics when he wrote and appeared in Carl Franklin's critically acclaimed directorial debut, One False Move (1991). A dark crime drama set in a small Arkansas town, the film provided a suitable antecedent to Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, a 1993 short that Thornton scripted. The George Hickenlooper-directed piece stars Thornton as Karl Childers, a mentally retarded, soft-spoken man, institutionalized for murder, who delivers a reflective monologue to a reporter (Molly Ringwald) just prior to his release from the psychiatric institution where he resides. (Thornton allegedly invented the Childers character years prior, while shaving and talking to himself in the mirror.) The effort won a number of positive notices and Thornton subsequently appeared in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man in 1995 and (with Epperson), co-authored the screenplay for A Family Thing (1996), a gentle Southern drama starring Robert Duvall as a Caucasian man who discovers that he is half black.
After years of relative obscurity as an actor and screenwriter, Thornton made a great cultural impact with the low-budget, independent drama Sling Blade. A feature-length expansion of the Hickenlooper short, and a sequel of sorts to that work, the picture finds Karl Childers returning to the outside world for the first occasion in decades, and attempting to begin a new, quiet life in a small Southern town. In the story, Karl befriends a local woman, her little boy, and a gay storekeeper (John Ritter), and finds lodging and steady income, but runs headfirst into Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam), a psychotically abusive lout who turns life for the mother and son into a waking nightmare. Bit by bit, Karl's old demons awaken and he feels himself being drawn back into the sphere of retributive violence. When Sling Blade premiered during the late 1996 holiday season, it swept away the hearts of audiences and critics worldwide and heralded the arrival of a major new talent. Journalists waxed rhapsodic in their praise. For Thornton's work on the film, he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, as well as a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
The 1996 triumph of Sling Blade brought Thornton a whirlwind of opportunities. He followed his success with a key supporting role in Robert Duvall's The Apostle (1998) as a hardened racist, a turn in Primary Colors (1998) as a James Carville-like campaign manager with a penchant for exhibitionism, and a role in Armageddon as NASA's executive director. Also in 1998, he received another Best Actor nomination for his work in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, the story of two brothers (Thornton and Bill Paxton) who descend into the depths of distrust and paranoia after stumbling upon four million dollars in the woods; it allowed Thornton to plumb the darker areas of the backwoods psyche as only he could do so well. The following year, Thornton starred in Mike Newell's Pushing Tin (1999), a comedy about two dueling air traffic controllers (Thornton and John Cusack). He also returned to his duties behind the camera, directing, writing, and starring in Daddy and Them, a comedy drama about the ups and downs of an eccentric Alabama family. In addition to Daddy and Them, Thornton signed on to act in a number of projects during 2000, including Wakin' Up in Reno, a romantic comedy about two white-trash couples; and South of Heaven, West of Hell, an ensemble Western that marked the directorial debut of country singer Dwight Yoakam. Thornton then delivered a pair of impressive dramatic performances in the first year of the new millennium. Agreeing to appear in Joel and Ethan Coen's neo noir The Man Who Wasn't There without so much as looking at the script (Thornton immediately accepted the role based on his creative respect for the Coens), the gangly actor earned a Golden Globe nomination for his turn as a barber who gets in over his head while attempting to execute a seemingly simple blackmail scheme. Subsequently cast alongside Bruce Willis in Barry Levinson's summer 2001 crime comedy Bandits, that film fared only marginally better than Thornton's sophomore directorial effort Daddy and Them.
Thornton's performance in the redemption-themed drama Monster's Ball more than redeemed him in the eyes of the public and press. In that picture, Thornton offers a sensitive portrayal of a conflicted soul who attempts to come to terms with his love for an African-American woman in the face of his racist father's hateful teachings. After once again chasing redemption in the Sundance premiere Levity, Thornton joined the Coen brothers for the disappointing romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty. In December of that same year, Thornton appeared in a role that only the gutsiest actors would take: the title character in Terry Zwigoff's (jet) black comedy, Bad Santa. Though gleefully, deliberately offensive, the picture never sacrifices its sharp sense of humor or its acid insight, and (perhaps as a result) became a massive runaway hit -- the definitive sleeper of 2003. At about the same time, Thornton cameoed as a slimy, philandering U.S. president who attempts to thwart the amorous conquest of Hugh Grant's prime minister, in the British romantic comedy Love Actually (2003).
In 2004, Thornton essayed the role of Davy Crockett in the historical action-epic The Alamo (2004). He was instrumental in bringing Bad Santa scribes John Requa and Glenn Ficarra on board for exhaustive rewrites of Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears remake (2005). Thornton then starred in director Todd Phillips' remake of Robert Hamer's 1960 comedy School for Scoundrels, which debuted in September 2006. Despite some scattered exceptions, the film received mostly negative reviews. Not long after, Thornton essayed the title role in the spectacular drama The Astronaut Farmer, issued in February 2007. This film cast the actor as Charlie Farmer, a retired NASA astronaut-cum-farmer who raises the ire of government authorities by building a spacecraft in his barn. Subsequent roles included a sadistic gym teacher in Mr. Woodcock (2007), an issue-ridden Hollywood studio head in The Informers (2008), and a manure salesman in The Smell of Success (2009). Not long after, Thornton announced his return to directing with the eagerly-anticipated drama Jayne Mansfield's Car. In 2011 he voiced Jack, of Jack and Kill fame, in the hit animated film Puss In Boots. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi