Johnny Depp has enjoyed an illustrious career spanning decades as one of Hollywood's most desirable acting stars, as well as one of the movie industry's most controversial figures. This, though, wasn't the life he'd initially envisioned for himself, as prior to beginning work as an actor, he'd been trying to pursue a very different entertainment career. Here, then, is the true story of the rise and fall of Johnny Depp, one of the most complicated actors of the past fifty years.
Johnny Depp was born John Christoper Depp II, in Owensboro, Kentucky, on June 9, 1963. He was named after his father, John Christopher Depp, who was a civil engineer. Despite sharing his father's name, Depp has stated that he didn't have the best relationship with his birth father growing up.
Settling in Miramar
Depp's family moved around frequently in his early childhood, before settling in Miramar, Florida in 1970. Here, Depp would put down roots and make friends, but it wasn't the end of big earth-shattering upheavals within his family.
A First Divorce
When Depp was fifteen years old, his parents divorced, and his mother, Betty Sue Palmer, eventually married a man named Robert Palmer. Unlike his biological father, Depp enjoyed a wonderful relationship with his step-father, later calling Palmer "an inspiration."
A Dedicated Mother
Depp was the youngest of four children born to Betty Sue Palmer, who worked as a waitress. According to Depp, his mother's upbringing was rough, as she was "raised in a shack, in the wilds of Appalachia, where the toilet was an outhouse."
Learning to Stand Up For Himself
Depp's mother taught him to stand up for himself and to act aggressively in the face of opposition. He once described her advice saying, "She'd come from nothing but hillbillies and she said, 'OK, here's the deal. Next time anybody puts their hands on you, pick up a brick and lay them out'. And I've taken that advice ever since."
Cherokee Heritage Claims
Depp has claimed that he has Native American heritage from the Cherokee tribe. When promoting "The Lone Ranger" (and justifying his role as Tonto), he claimed: "My great-grandmother was quite a bit of Native American. She grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian." Due to a lack of evidence, the Cherokee tribe has criticized Depp's claims and refused to acknowledge him as a member of the tribe.
According to Depp, his battles with addiction began at a young age. When he was eleven years old, he began experimenting with his mother's "nerve pills," at age twelve he started smoking, and he has stated that by age fourteen he had tried "every kind of [illicit substances] there were." This would cause him significant problems throughout his life.
Love for his Mother
Depp has noted that his mother was not always forthcoming with affection, stating that, in contrast, he is quick to tell his children that he loves them. Nevertheless, Depp clearly had a deep love for his mother, who died in 2016; he bought her a 43-acre farm in Kentucky in 1995, and has her name tattooed onto his upper arm.
Rock and Roll
When Depp was twelve, his mother dramatically changed the course of his life by purchasing him an electric guitar. Depp absolutely loved music, and was eager to emulate some of his favorite rock stars, such as Eddie Van Halen and Keith Richards.
Formal education didn't suit Depp, and as he got better at playing his guitar, he eventually decided to drop out of high school. He was sixteen years old when he made this decision, and regretted it almost immediately.
A Smart Principal
Two weeks after quitting school to focus on his music, Depp went back to his former high school principal and begged for the chance to re-enroll. His ex-principal refused Depp's request, instead insisting that he focus on his music career. Whatever the principal's reasoning for this, he clearly made the right decision for Depp's future.
By 1980, Depp was a member of local Florida band The Kids. The band won a lot of fans within the state, and played some impressive shows, opening for bands including The Pretenders, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and Talking Heads.
Moving to LA
The Kids renamed themselves Six Gun Method and made the move to Los Angeles, California, in an effort to find a record label. Things didn't go as planned, as the band broke up before long, but Depp made a romantic connection that changed the trajectory of his life yet again.
Depp's First Marriage
In 1983, Depp married makeup artist Lori Allison, the sister of The Kids' bassist and lead singer. This was crucially important to his success as an actor, as Allison helped to steer him down a new career path.
An Actor's Life for Me
When Six Gun Method imploded, Depp spent some time collaborating with another band, Rock City Angels, but was in need of steady work. His wife introduced him to an already famous actor, Nicholas Cage, who got the ball rolling on Depp's acting career.
Rebel Without a Cause
At Cage's behest, Depp began auditioning for acting roles. While he hadn't considered acting, Depp had been fascinated by a biography of actor James Dean, and Cage convinced him to give acting a try.
"A Nightmare on Elm Street"
It wasn't long before Depp landed his first major role: a part in Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street." According to Craven, Depp was hired because Craven's daughter thought he was attractive, and that was a good enough reason to cast him as one of Freddy Krueger's victims.
Depp's First Divorce
Shortly after the release of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Depp and Allison divorced. While Depp had been somewhat introverted prior to his marriage, he then earned a reputation as a party boy who was involved in a slew of whirlwind romances. While he had several long-term partners in the coming years, he would not marry again until 2015.
A Reluctant Actor
Over the next few years, Depp was cast in a series of movies, despite, by his own admission, the fact that he "didn't have any desire to be an actor." Acting paid the bills, though, so he kept pursuing it until landing his breakout role.
"21 Jump Street"
Depp was cast as an undercover cop attending high school in the Fox television show "21 Jump Street." This instantly garnered him worldwide attention and fame, but Depp was not always particularly impressed with his role in the show. He said that "21 Jump Street" "forced [him] into the role of product."
Rebelling Against Type
Towards the end of his time on "21 Jump Street," Depp began acting out. He would turn up on set wearing ridiculous outfits, at one pointing coming to work dressed as Elton John. While he had a lucrative career as a TV heartthrob, Depp wanted something more.
In 1989, Depp was arrested in Vancouver, Canada for assaulting a security guard. A party in his hotel room grew so loud and raucous that the police were called, at which point, Depp became violent. This was one of many reports of violent behavior over the coming years.
Pushing back against his public image at the time, the '90s saw Depp embracing weird, wonderful movies that were anything but safe choices. He decided to pursue roles that were genuinely interesting to him, regardless of whether they would be financially successful. To everyone's surprise, this paid off.
Depp's first collaboration with director Tim Burton may have seemed like an odd choice at the time, but the phenomenal popularity of "Edward Scissorhands" is still felt to this day. Audiences at the time fell in love with the offbeat, tragic, bittersweet melding of '90s suburbia and campy horror, and Depp discovered that he could let his freak flag fly without fear.
He Researched Chaplin
According to Depp, research for his role in "Edward Scissorhands" involved watching a lot of silent films. He studied Charlie Chaplin in particular, learning how to evoke sympathy from an audience without a single line of dialogue, and incorporated many silent actors' mannerisms into his work. This would be important for his next collaboration with Burton.
During this period of Depp's life, he proposed to several women. Before "Edward Scissorhands," he was at different times engaged to actresses Jennifer Grey and Sherilyn Fenn. Following "Edward Scissorhands," Depp proposed to Winona Ryder, and went so far as to get a tattoo reading Winona Forever. His affection clearly didn't actually stand the test of time, as he later had it changed to read Wino Forever.
In 1994, Burton and Depp collaborated for a second time on "Ed Wood," a biopic about the eponymous cult filmmaker. At the time, Depp was disillusioned with filmmaking, but later stated that working alongside costar Martin Landau "rejuvenated [his] love for acting."
Depp's third collaboration with Tim Burton was the critical and commercial smash hit "Sleepy Hollow." For this movie, Depp says that he took inspiration from Angela Lansbury among others, saying that he "always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl."
While maintaining his love of offbeat, spooky films with his Burton collaborations, Depp also found time to playing more traditional leading man roles in movies such as "Chocolat." These two sides of his career allowed him to continue his career as a heartthrob, and helped him maintain widespread mainstream acclaim.
After a relationship with British fashion model Kate Moss, Depp began seeing French actor and singer Vanessa Paradis. While the pair never married, the relationship was the longest of Depp's life thus far, beginning in 1998 before the couple ultimately broke up in 2012.
With Vanessa Paradis, Depp fathered two children: Lily-Rose Melody Depp, born in 1999, and John Christopher "Jack" Depp III, born in 2002. Depp has spoken about his love for his children and has said that becoming a father has given him "real foundation, a real strong place to stand in life, in work, in everything."
In the early 2000s, Depp signed on to play Captain Jack Sparrow in Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer's "Pirates of the Caribbean." An adaptation loosely based on a famous Disneyland ride, Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner was terrified of the project and tried to shut it down, but was temporarily persuaded that with a bankable star like Depp involved, the movie should be a hit. This, however, didn't last long.
When Eisner actually saw Depp's costume for the movie, he was furious. They had hired one of the most attractive men in Hollywood, but he was completely unrecognizable. It took a lot of persuasion to convince the higher ups at Disney to let Depp play Jack Sparrow his own way, but if Depp had been given free reign, his version of the characer would have been even stranger.
A Nose for Trouble
Depp's initial idea for Jack Sparrow was that the pirate didn't have a nose. He envisioned a pirate who had suffered a nose-related accident, sewed it back on, and had it turn blue. This version of Jack would have had no fear, except pepper, lest he sneeze and send his dead nose shooting across the room.
Like a Rolling Stone
Depp's nose idea for Jack Sparrow was rejected, but the Pirates production team fought hard to convince Disney to let him keep his unorthodox performance. Depp has said that Jack Sparrow is heavily based on The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and Richards appears in several of the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies as Jack Sparrow's father.
Everybody Loves Jack
Disney executives were widely proven wrong when "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" became the surprise blockbuster hit of 2003. Not only did the movie catapult Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom to superstardom, it created the new defining character of Johnny Depp's career and firmly cemented him as one of the world's most financially bankable character actors.
In between "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels, Depp took on a variety of different roles, most notably more collaborations with Tim Burton. During this era, he played Willy Wonka in a new adaptation of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in the movie.
Depp also turned to animated voice acting, providing his vocal talents to another Burton project, "Corpse Bride." While this movie was not as memorable as a previous Burton animation, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," it still won widespread acclaim for its use of stop-motion animation.
"Alice in Wonderland"
One of Depp's most financially successful movies of all time came in 2010, when he yet again partnered with Tim Burton, this time on a live-action adaptation of Lewis Caroll's "Alice in Wonderland." Depp played the Mad Hatter, and the movie went on to earn over a billion dollars at the box office. This was something of a peak for Depp's financial career, as his star power began to fade soon after.
Depp starred in and co-produced the 2012 movie "Dark Shadows," directed yet again by Tim Burton. "Dark Shadows" is based on a spooky television soap opera from the 1960s, for which Depp and Burton shared a love. The film was not well received, and Depp's reputation took a hit as a result.
"The Lone Ranger"
One of the lowest points of Depp's career was "The Lone Ranger." Intended as a reunion of many of the creators that made "Pirates of the Caribbean" so popular, the film sparked controversy for Depp's performance as the Native American character Tonto. The movie lost Disney $190 million when it underperformed at the box office.
Battling with Addiction
Throughout his career, Depp has struggled privately with alcohol abuse. He made multiple attempts to reduce his intake of alcohol, but was unable to stay sober. In 2013, Depp announced that he had stopped drinking entirely, stating, "I investigated wine and spirits thoroughly, and they certainly investigated me as well, and we found out that we got along beautifully, but maybe too well." Later accusations suggest that he did not manage to stay clean for long.
More Allegations Resurface
In 2012, Depp was sued for assault by UC Irvine medical professor Robin Eckert. Eckert alleged that Depp's bodyguards had handcuffed her at a concert in LA, dragged her across the floor, and dislocated her elbow, all while Depp refused to intervene. Depp ultimately elected to settle with Eckert rather than let the case go to court.
Depp first met Amber Heard in 2011, shortly before separating from Vanessa Paradis, when he and Heard were working together on the film "The Rum Diary." It didn't take long after Depp and Paradis split before Depp began dating Heard, and the two were married in a civil ceremony in 2015.
"Alice Through the Looking Glass"
In yet another collaboration with Tim Burton for Disney, Depp reprised the role of the Mad Hatter for "Alice Through the Looking Glass," a direct sequel to the first live-action Alice movie. In stark contrast to the first film, this movie was a box office bomb, losing Disney a significant portion of its production costs.
The Australian Controversy
In 2015, Depp and Heard dew ire from the Australian government after Heard was accused of breaching strict biosecurity laws by bringing a pair of dogs into the country without filing proper paperwork. Heard plead guilty to charges leveled against her, and both she and Depp released a video apologizing for breaking the rules and urging others to follow biosecurity laws to the letter.
"Dead Men Tell No Tales"
Depp's fifth and (thus far) final "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, "Dead Men Tell No Tales," was released to almost universal critical disgust. Depp was accused of phoning in his performance, with cast members claiming that he didn't bother to learn his lines and was instead told what to say via an earpiece hidden underneath his costume's dreadlocks. In spite of this, the movie performed well in many global markets, earning nearly $800 million worldwide.
The Era of Lawsuits
Also in 2017, Depp sued his former management company, The Management Group, alleging that mismanagement had left him $40 million in debt. In response, The Management Group countersued Depp for unpaid fees. In 2018, Depp sued British tabloid The Sun newspaper for libel after being accused of domestic abuse. The courts ruled in The Sun's favor.
What's Next for Depp?
Johnny Depp's life clearly has taken a lot of twists and turns over the decades, and there's no telling where he'll end up next. As he continues to fight lawsuits and tries to rekindle his flagging movie career, there will no doubt be plenty more surprises in store for the future.