Initially known as a teen idol thanks to his role on 21 Jump Street and tortured pretty-boy looks, Johnny Depp survived the perils of adolescent heartthrob status to earn a reputation as a respected adult actor. His numerous collaborations with director Tim Burton, as well as solid performances in a number of critically acclaimed films, have allowed Depp to carve a niche for himself as a serious, if idiosyncratic performer, a real-life role that has continuously surprised critics intent on writing him off as just another photogenic Tiger Beat casualty.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Florida,Depp had the kind of upbringing that would readily lend itself to his future portrayals of brooding lost boys. After his parents divorced when he was 16, he dropped out of school a year later in the hopes of making his way in the world as a musician. Depp fronted a series of garage bands; the most successful of these, the Kids, was once the opening act for Iggy Pop. During slack times in the music business, Depp sold pens by phone. He got introduced to acting after a visit to L.A. with his former wife, who introduced him to actor Nicolas Cage, who encouraged Depp to give it a try. The young actor made his film debut in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street (years after attaining stardom, Depp sentimentally played a cameo in the last of the Elm Street series), and his climb to fame was accelerated in 1987, when he replaced Jeff Yagher in the role of Officer Tom Hanson, a cop assigned to do undercover duty by posing as a student in crime-ridden Los Angeles-area high schools, in the Canadian-filmed Fox TV series 21 Jump Street (1987-90). Biding his time in "teen heartthrob" roles, Depp was first given a chance to exhibit his exhausting versatility in the title role of Tim Burton's fantasy Edward Scissorhands (1990).
Following the success of Edward Scissorhands, the actor made a conscious and successful effort never to repeat himself. He continued to gain critical acclaim and increasing popularity for his work, most notably in Benny & Joon (1993), What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood and Dead Man. Depp continued to ascend the Hollywood ranks. He would continue to play quirky character roles, starring turn as Hunter S. Thompson's alter ego in Terry Gilliam's trippy adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and teaming with Burton again to play a decidedly mincing Icabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow. Depp's charm still made him a natural romantic lead, however, as he proved in Chocolat.
In what was perhaps his most surprising departure since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp shed his oftentimes angst-ridden persona for a role as flamboyant pirate Jack Sparrow in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean. Essaying the crusty role in the manner of a drunken, debauched rock star -- Depp publicly admitted Keith Richards was his inspiration -- the actor added a dose of off-kilter fun to an above-average summer thrill ride, and found himself with his biggest hit and first Oscar nomination ever.
The role effectively made Depp both a character actor and full fledged leading man, and he would continue to appear in seveal films over the coming years that allowed him to star in large scale productions, playing decidedly quirky characters. Films like Secret Window, Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Public Enemies, and a slew of massively successful Pirates of the Caribbean sequels would prove again and again how taken audiences were with the star, always playing the hero, but with an unconventional twist. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi